Blogs > HNN > Historians as a Group Should Not Endorse Candidates

Dec 9, 2007 5:43 pm

Historians as a Group Should Not Endorse Candidates

Recently, more than 70 historians proclaimed their support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy under the banner headline: Historians for Obama. It triggered the predictable response: both A Historian Against Obama, then Academics for Ron Paul. Let’s put aside the question of whether it should be “a historian” or “an historian.” Although I have tremendous respect for many of the historians who signed the endorsement letter, I do not think that historians as a group should endorse candidates. Uniting on the basis of our professional expertise implies that somehow through applying the rigorous skills of our discipline it is obvious who should be the next president.

I am no shrinking violet and have taken many stands on public issues in newspapers. However, I try to keep my political activism out of the classroom – and out of my historical monographs. Taking a strong stand as an historian, with other historians, would breach the already admittedly shaky and permeable wall I’ve built between my scholarship and my activism.

I think there is great merit in trying to keep the mantle of objectivity as both a teacher and a scholar – if not as a citizen. To help stimulate what I think is a necessary and long overdue discussion about this question – on different terms than is usually debated – let’s think about journalists. Let’s start by admitting (without probing deeply “why” for now) most academics’ (unfairly) condescending attitudes toward reporters. If they are the ones who, as the cliché goes, write history’s first draft, we are the ones who supposedly write the more authoritative, objective version.

And yet, academics, especially these days, feel empowered to be political inside and outside the classroom – often with few internal or external constraints – while our most respected journalists follow careful “conflict of interest” guidelines. In 1989, when reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post participated in a pro-choice march, editors at both papers criticized them. More recently, when one of those reporters, Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times, who covers the Supreme Court, gave a partisan speech at Harvard University it triggered another controversy.
The NPR story covering that speech quoted the first public editor – or in-house journalism critic – of the New York Times, Daniel Okrent, who reportedly was amazed by Greenhouse’s speech, saying: “It's been a basic tenet of journalism ... that the reporter's ideology [has] to be suppressed and submerged, so the reader has absolute confidence that what he or she is reading is not colored by previous views.” Don’t our students – and readers -- deserve what newspaper readers deserve? Isn’t there value in trying to control ourselves, and not turn our professorial podiums into political platforms? At what point does blurring the line between scholarship and advocacy risk becoming educational and professional malpractice?

I pose these as questions because I acknowledge my own inconsistencies here. I remember as an undergraduate how exciting it was to hear Professor Archibald Cox lecture about Supreme Court cases he argued originally as Solicitor General or watching professors work on campaigns, advise presidents, or take public stands. But I also respected professors who kept their opinions to themselves, and kept their partisan politics out of their professional scholarship.

I am not critical of individual historians who plunge into the public arena – I struggle with the question of how intellectuals stay relevant and make a broader contribution. But I draw the line on these kinds of group statements in speculative political matters – just as I try to draw a line between my identity as an op-ed writer my students might read in the morning and as their professor whose hopefully far less political and polemical lecture they will attend in the afternoon.

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    Roger Alphonse Pauly - 12/19/2007

    This kind of "Historians for Joe Shoe" crap does nothing to improve our battered image with main-street America. Too many ordinary citizens already see us as irrelevant political hacks and apologists. We can write them off as ignorant unwashed-rednecks, but these taxpayers write the paychecks for many of us in state-universities. There are enough attacks on independent liberal studies as it is. Let us not give them any more ammo and stick to the jobs we have been hired to do. We should stick to teaching history and not advocate for current ideologies. I agree with John Beatty. Support whomever you want, but not with your historian-badge on.

    Ralph E. Luker - 12/16/2007

    Brother Hughes, The other way to look at it would be to regard your statement as a fair measure of how far to the Right you are.

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/15/2007

    There is nothing wrong with these advertisments by such groups, except that their endorsements do brand any candidate in America today as an extreme leftist. Candidates who wish to mute or masque their leftism--which will be the case with most receiving endorsements from contemporary historians--ought to be asked beforehand whether they think the endorsement might not be counterproductive. Years ago, before historians were virtually all on the same page, such endorsements would have had more meaning. Today they must be seen principally as badges of political correctness.

    Maarja Krusten - 12/14/2007

    Dr. Troy writes, "I am not critical of individual historians who plunge into the public arena – I struggle with the question of how intellectuals stay relevant and make a broader contribution." He raises some interesting questions in his posting. If anyone knows of sites other than HNN where there is now or has been in the past discussion of the types of issues Dr. Troy raises here, please post links or citations. I've already seen the article and comments at
    and am looking for something more reflective in tone than that message board, which permits anonymous posting. Since I'm not convinced the issues are clear cut or have easy answers, I'm especially interested in discussion of whether historians should publicly support candidates; the calculations that go into deciding to do so; how going public might affect students; reflections on public perceptions historians (including by officials who create the records they study) and resulting efforts at outreach; what motivates historians to plunge into the public arena in some areas but not others, etc.

    Ralph E. Luker - 12/13/2007

    The group is called Historians for Obama *because* being historians and being for Obama is what we have in common. As I've said, we don't claim to speak for all historians, all Obama supporters, all academics, all citizens, or *any* professional organizations of historians.
    Your problem, in the end, is a problem with a basic belief of most historians I know. We believe that the past is relevant to the present and the future. Most of us don't claim to know *exactly* how it is relevant or to believe that past experience is inexorably or definitively illuminating. Even so, most of us would think that historians of the presidency have some real sense of what the position demands. Most of us would think that historians of religion in America would have a reasonably good sense of how to take the measure of religious rhetoric in a presidential campaign, etc.

    Stuart Buck - 12/13/2007

    Sorry, that bit about the "straight answer" was catty, and I don't see a way to edit that comment.

    Stuart Buck - 12/13/2007

    Good one.

    On the other hand, I haven't said, "I'm an authority on X, therefore you should believe me on Y." I'm not saying, "As a lawyer, I think such-and-such about the Obama statement." I've instead made an argument that in no way relies on any supposed authority or expertise that I have. So that comeback doesn't really work after all.

    My argument, again, is that expertise on William Jennings Bryan or on examining various archival materials about former Presidents does not translate into expertise on Obama's "charisma" (!) or Obama's "foreign policy" or his health insurance policy.

    So tell me this, if you can give a straight answer: Why the need to label the statement as "Historians," and to include in the text the phrase, "As historians . . ."? Why do that, if you're not trading on your expertise as historians? And again, how does your expertise as historians give you any expertise in knowing that Obama would be better than Edwards (indeed, how can there even be any such thing as "expertise" on such open-ended and forward-looking questions)?

    Ralph E. Luker - 12/13/2007

    Frankly, I have no more nonfallacious reason to care what Stuart Buck thinks of the Historians for Obama statement than he claim to have for it. What expertise does he bring to such judgments? It's fairly obvious that presidents deal with many issues -- not simply one -- and our or their particular expertise in one particular issue -- say, renewable energy -- is hardly to the point. So, does Stuart Buck have something relevant to say?

    Stuart Buck - 12/13/2007

    To be blunt, I don't see any reason that a rational person should care what "Historians" think about Obama's "charisma," or his health insurance policies, or his renewable energy policies, any more than what a group of "Hairdressers for Obama" says. (Of course, if a particular historian who is an actual expert on renewable energy writes out a detailed argument as to why Obama is superior to Clinton and Edwards on that issue, then that's very much worth listening to. But that would be quite a different thing.)

    Stuart Buck - 12/13/2007

    Well, it's interesting that you'd make that comparison to the Lawyers Committee for Thompson. When I hear of such efforts, my first thought (perhaps too cynically) is that people are just angling to be nominated for judgeships, for Department of Justice positions, etc., in a potential Thompson administration. What personal favor are the "Historians" trying to curry from Obama?

    The stated purpose of that committee is to signal support for Thompson's position on judicial nominations. I don't know that there's any objective expertise that's even possible in that matter -- we all have a right to different opinions about the role of the judiciary, and it's not merely a question of "expertise" as to whether (for example) the Supreme Court should strike down abortion laws. So what the Committee is really doing is just signaling to other conservatives, "We trust Thompson to do the sorts of things that conservatives like w/r/t judicial nominations."

    In any event, you're making another completely fallacious argument. Whether or not I personally challenge Volokh has nothing to do with the validity of the argument I've brought forth here -- which is that public statements of that sort inevitably involve many dozens of people pawning off expertise in one area as expertise at something else.

    Do you have a non-fallacious answer to that? (It's not obvious to me that "historians of the presidency" have any useful insights into renewable energy, for example.)

    Ralph E. Luker - 12/13/2007

    I don't understand why you are not telling Eugene Volokh and his compatriots at The Volokh Conspiracy that they should resign from the Lawyers Committee for Thompson because their special expertise is not in election law or, even, constitutional law. The statement for Historians for Obama was drafted by Michael Kazin and signed by, among others, Robert Dallek and KC Johnson. They are among the most important contemporary American political historians, even historians of the presidency.

    Stuart Buck - 12/12/2007

    By the way, I highly recommend a paper by Boston University law professor Ward Farnsworth: It's called, "Talking Out Of School: Notes On The Transmission Of Intellectual Capital From The Legal Academy To Public Tribunals."

    Stuart Buck - 12/12/2007

    I never said that you purported to speak for the whole historical profession. What I said, once again, is that the statement seemed to be meant to invoke the aura of historical expertise in an over-reaching manner. If I say that "as a lawyer, I predict that the Boston Celtics will win the NBA championship," and you respond, "what does being a lawyer have to do with basketball," would it be pertinent for me to respond, "I'm not purporting to speak for the entire legal profession"? No. That would be a non sequitur. The problem wouldn't be my speaking on behalf of the profession, but my attempt to pass off expertise in one area as expertise in an unrelated area.

    Again, a (hypothetical) "Doctors for Giuliani" would have the most credibility if they spoke to issues that doctors know something about, or as to which doctors in particular have an interest. But if a group of "Doctors" gather together to say that, speaking "as doctors," they liked Giuliani's tough attitude, his policing strategies, his judicial nominations, and his masculine smile, my reaction would be, "So what? Sure, maybe there's an individual doctor in the group who has made a special study of judicial nominations, but doctors qua doctors don't know anything more about those things than the average person."

    Ralph E. Luker - 12/12/2007

    There are, as a matter of fact, historians who have signed the statement who have expertise in the areas of which you speak. Surely you don't mean to suggest that Doctors for Giuliani must restrict itself to giving him physical exams and advice about what's good for him. Nor are Lawyers for Thompson his legal counsel. They speak in their professional capacity, as we do, but they don't presume to speak for the whole medical or legal professions. Nor do we.

    Stuart Buck - 12/12/2007

    I left out the words "to support" the first time, but if the reader didn't even notice, I suppose it's counterproductive to call attention to it . . . .

    You keep saying "privatize," but I don't see how "private vs. public" is a relevant metric here at all. Historians are perfectly free to speak as individuals, or to join the Democratic Party, or the ACLU, or whatever group they wish, and to participate in politics in that capacity. Any such involvement is no more or less "privatize[d]" than speaking as "historians."

    What's objectionable to speaking as "historians" is not that it's "public" or "un-private," but that
    it gives the appearance of claiming the mantle of scholarly authority for things that are beyond the expertise that historians, qua historians, possess.

    "Historians for Obama" is like a (hypothetical) "Doctors for Giuliani" only if both groups are speaking as to issues that are of specific concern to their profession, i.e., if the historians are speaking out as to Obama's policies as to the National Archives and the Freedom of Information Act, or if the doctors are speaking out as to Giuliani's position on Medicaid reimbursement.

    If either group, however, starts speaking out as to renewable energy or current foreign policy or other issues on which they have no particular expertise, then that is more problematic. If you have time, it would be useful to have a response to this point.

    Ralph E. Luker - 12/12/2007

    Er, I think that's what you said the first time. Your logic would, of course, apply just as well to Doctors for Giuliani or Lawyers for Thompson. I see no particular reason why historians as a class of people must privatize their politics.

    Stuart Buck - 12/12/2007

    It's great to support "investing in renewable energy," that should have said.

    Stuart Buck - 12/12/2007

    It's one thing for individual historians to take a position as a private citizen, without claiming the mantle of scholarly expertise for their judgments. It's another thing to form a group and call it "Historians for Politician X," as if historians have a better idea as to who should be President by virtue of their realm of expertise. It's great "investing in renewable energy," to quote the statement on Obama, but I can't imagine a reason to think that historians qua historians have any useful insights on that issue.

    Ralph E. Luker - 12/12/2007

    Professor Troy has already accepted the legitimacy of individual historians taking a political stance. That must be acceptable or he must condemn, for example, Jaroslav Pelikan's announcement that he had left the Lutheran Church to become an Eastern Orthodox communicant. Or Al Raboteau's announcement that he'd left Roman Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy. Historians can privatize or keep private their political or religious point of view if they wish, but that doesn't change the fact that they have points of view. So long as we don't claim to speak for all historians or commit our professional organizations, our making a voluntary and collective statement is an honest declaration of perspective.

    Maarja Krusten - 12/12/2007

    Journalists and auditors are the two groups that most mirror historians. No informally or formally associated group of journalists would endorse a candidate. Nor would a group of auditors (a general term under which I include accountants and evaluators) urge the President to name a particular individual to head a cabinet department of federal agency. Some of them, after all, might later do performance audits or program evaluations of that department or agency.

    Academic historians are, of course, a diverse group. Some are retired from teaching, others still have a classroom presence. Of those in the latter category, some have tenure, others do not. Since Dr. Troy threw out the question in his posting, I would like to see some candid discussion of whether that classroom presence potentially would be affected by known association with a particular candidate. Isn't it relevant to the central point raised in the posting, and deserving of some introspective observations here?

    This forum is a good opportunity for public outreach for those of you with experience teaching on college campuses. Students may be interested in how you view the need to convey facts authoritatively but not to impose your political views on those in your care in the classroom. I chose the governmental rather than the academic path so I'm interested in introspective comments from you which would clarify for me how you view such challenges.

    Posted on personal time

    Gil Troy - 12/12/2007

    I think there's a distinction between groups that form around shared interest -- such as the International Pipefitters -- and groups that form around shared (or perceived) expertise. When the International Pipefitters endorse Obama, I interpret it as a statement that they believe their labor interests are best served by Obama's election.

    When historians create a group, like it or not, we are projecting a sense that our expertise, not just our shared interest, leads us to that conclusion. We so frequently emphasize our expertise as interpreters of the past that no matter how we word an endorsement, that's going to be front and center. I don't believe lawyers have the same professional inhibitions on them -- that's why I stick to my journalist analogy.

    As for the impossibility of objective history -- I certainly don't feel like resurrecting the arguments over the last thirty years -- but I think there is value in trying to de-politicize rather than overly politicize, even within our many personal limitations. And, I admit, I'm no neutral. I just said that as one who actively struggles with the question, this group endorsement as historians -- not as nice people of conscience who met at a professional convention -- crosses the line for me, and offers a good opportunity for all of us to consider what restrictions, if any, we wish to impose on ourselves.

    Gil Troy - 12/12/2007

    Ralph Luker's post misrepresents my post. I know that the 70+ historians are not the OAH or AHA -- but follow the logic of my analogy. If 70+ reporters announced that they were forming "Journalists for Obama" -- what would happen (after conservatives finished high-fiving and doing the "I told you so" dance). I believe that many leading journalists, concerned with journalistic integrity would say what I said, which is namely, we shouldn't do that as a group. I precisely pick on the Historians as Obama phenomenon, because it's more in the gray zone than an OAH/AHA endorsement. But I still feel strongly that when a group of historians speaks as historians, it implies that our professional expertise leads to this "obvious" conclusion, and it unduly politicizes an already overly-politicized profession.

    Maarja Krusten - 12/10/2007

    Sorry, I sometimes compose in Word but don't always catch errors and even typos. My apologies, I don't always catch errors of syntax or spelling and occasionally garble my phrases. Proofreading on the screen doesn't always work for me and sometimes. At other time, I just hit submit too soon as I am multi-tasking and not paying enough attention to my writing in this informal setting.

    Thanks for your understanding.

    Maarja Krusten - 12/10/2007

    I'm pleased to see that I was overly pessimistic about Dr. Troy's essay drawing comments. Moving it to the main page has drawn attention to it.

    You write that "Readers can evaluate their opinions any way they wish." Quite right. But what about in the classroom, something Dr. Troy mentions in his original posting?

    In reading comments posted on the Washington Post's website under Robert Maranto's editorial ("As a Republican, I'm On the Fringe") I was struck by a couple of comments from people who said that as students in college, they felt intimidated into taking positions in their papers with which they did not agree. One said s/he learned to fake it and write to the professor's perceived biases rather than forming his or her own conclusions.

    There's no way to verify whether the anecdotes people write about on such message boards actually occurred. Since I am far removed from my days on campus, I'd like to know how you and others feel about the classroom angle these days. What is the potential impact of knowing that a professor endorsed a candidate? How easy, if at all, is it to tell when a student is telling you what she or he thinks you want to hear?

    Dr. Troy writes, "I try to draw a line between my identity as an op-ed writer my students might read in the morning and as their professor whose hopefully far less political and polemical lecture they will attend in the afternoon." Does every professor have the skill and the intuitive ability to create the right comfort zone in his or her classroom?

    My college experiences are too far behind me to offer much perspective on this. I was an undergraduate from 1969 to 1973, a tumultuous time to be going to school in the DC area (I still remember the smell of tear gas on my campus, which was close the White House). But the events I studied in my history classes did not seem to lend themselves to much interjection by professors of their personal political views. Even the near past then meant the 1940s and the 1950s. When I did get a whiff of a professor's political views, I tended to shrug and to think, "well, you go my way, I'll go mine." (I then was a member of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group on campus. Since 1989 or so, I've referred to myself as an Independent, I can't be called either a conservative or a liberal.) I was lucky enough never to feel that I had to compromise my own beliefs in shooting for an A in class.

    Posted on personal time

    Alonzo Hamby - 12/10/2007

    Historians as citizens enjoy the same freedoms as everyone else. Historians as teachers really should strive for some level of objectivity or detachment in the classroom. I had a colleague who for many years would turn his Fall classes during presidential election years into a continuous campaign. Most of us thought this was an embarrassment to the department.

    By the same token, it seems to me that professional organizations should limit themselves to professional concerns. Their endorsements (or statements on political controversies) in any case have no weight in the outside world and simply damage their credibility. (Crazy academics. What do you expect?)

    On the other hand, historians as authors should feel free to express their thoughts about historical personalities and events freely. Readers can evaluate their opinions any way they wish. I don't know what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was like in the classroom, although I've been told he was a very good teacher. I do consider his opinionated books to be very good history, even when I've come to disagree with some of his arguments.

    Come to think of it, same goes for Mike Kazin, and I've been an enthusiastic blurber for Gil Troy.

    Maarja Krusten - 12/10/2007

    Short version: We who were hired to work at the National Archives during the 1970s due to our academic training as historians were blindsided by the way the former President and the Department of Justice (presumably acting for the incumbent President) reacted in the late 1980s as time came to open Nixon's records. I've spent 20 years trying to understand what happened to us and why. My conclusion: the political world operates with very different rules from the academy and battles often are fought in a manner in which no holds are barred. Reason is not always met with reason, facts with facts. And you don't always have a forum in which to fight back. Some battles definitely are worth fighting but it helps to know the world you are entering. Many of us did not in the late 1970s, we learned the hard way. No matter how well you believe you have conducted yourself professionally, in the political realsm, there simply is no way to situate yourself so as to avoid all attacks.

    Maarja Krusten - 12/10/2007

    I’m not taking a position on what academic historians should do here since I’m a federal historian, and do not plan to sign any petitions, as long as that is the case. But I would like to ask a question since this topic interests me.

    Isn’t there a difference between historians endorsing a candidate, individually or as a loosely formed group, and labor union officials, lawyers or members of other professions? And doesn’t part of the potential impact depend on the use to be made of the petition? (Will it be posted in a professional forum or will there be efforts to make the general public aware of the endorsement?)

    Some historians have written about Presidents or about governmental actions in the past and will do so in the future. Not so labor union officials, lawyers, firemen, policemen, and so forth. When a lawyer walks into a courtroom to act as a litigator or negotiates with opposing counsel to settle a case, that he once signed a petition to support a candidate is unlikely to be noted by anyone. You can’t say the same thing about historians.

    That’s not to say historians or archivists can’t engage in political activity. Or write fairly or with relative seeming objectivity about Presidents and government issues. But they have to be prepared to live with the consequences, unwarranted or not, of their past words. And even to recognize that what they do may create headaches for employers such as the National Archives. (The National Archives primarily hires people with graduate degrees in history.) I’ve cautioned undergraduates and graduates who now are studying history or library and information science with an eye to working in the archival field that if they are going to leave electronic footprints on political issues, they have to be prepared for how others may use their words. The public and former government officials (Presidents among them) will be depending on them to act objectively and in a nonpartisan fashion as they make decisions on whether to open or restrict government records.

    Depending on what they said in Internet forums, some students might even be shutting the door to future employment in certain institutions. (In one forum in which I engage, a few people have been sharply critical of Bill Clinton and a few of George W. Bush. Some of them are unlikely to end up on the top of the selection list if they applied for jobs at the Clinton Presidential Library or the future George W. Bush Presidential Library. Their past words potentially could heighten the risk that their employing institution, the National Archives, could come under external attack.)

    When I worked with the Nixon tapes and documents as an employee of the National Archives from 1976 to 1990, my colleagues and I had no electronic footprints, no record of endorsing or opposing political candidates. That didn’t stop Richard Nixon’s lawyers from trying to fling mud at us, implying we were biased against Nixon because we were “too liberal” in our archival disclosure decisions. I don’t blame Nixon’s lawyers – flinging mud and attacking those whom they perceive as a threat to a former President is what top notch litigators do to protect their powerful clients’ interests. How people react to such attacks is going to vary and definitely worth considering. Again, do what you like, but remember that unlike in the classroom, you can't control what others do with your words.

    Posted on personal time

    Michael Glen Wade - 12/10/2007

    I think it might be much more useful if historians and other academics, in groups and individually, spoke out about what the most important issues facing this country are, rather than about this or that candidate, none of whom seem to be willing or able to express a larger vision of what is ahead for this and succeeding generations. Of course there would not be absolute agreement on what these matters are, but the shift of focus from personalities to policies would be a tonic and I suspect that the public would have something considerably weightier to mull over than the mealy-mouthed platitudes put out in the Democratic (Howard Dean has been a major disappointment) and Republican campaign platforms.

    Michael Kazin - 12/10/2007

    The argument that a group of historians shouldn't endorse a candidate would apply equally well to labor unionists, trial lawyers, or textile executives -- all of whom regularly do the same. To engage in politics as part of a group group-- occupational, racial, or religious -- should not be controversial. In the Historians for Obama statement, we draw on the past, but we never imply that our profession makes us wiser than other citizens.

    As for "objective" history: name an influential historian from the past century who did NOT put forth a vigorous, often controversial, interpretation about the past. We seek to understand conflicts and present the arguments of both sides fairly. But we also make arguments that invariably make one side or another look better in retrospect.

    Michael Kazin - 12/10/2007

    The argument that a group of historians shouldn't endorse a candidate would apply equally well to labor unionists, trial lawyers, or textile executives -- all of whom regularly do the same. To engage in politics as part of a group group-- occupational, racial, or religious -- should not be controversial. In the Historians for Obama statement, we draw on the past, but we never imply that our profession makes us wiser than other citizens.

    As for "objective" history: name an influential historian from the past century who did NOT put forth a vigorous, often controversial, interpretation about the past. We seek to understand conflicts and present the arguments of both sides fairly. But we also make arguments that invariably make one side or another look better in retrospect.

    John D. Beatty - 12/10/2007

    Want to endorse the grifter of your choice for elected office? Fine. Step away from the podium, don't use your title or your position--be it historian, talk show host or any other form of "celebrity" that adds the imprimatur of any "authority" on any subject--and endorse away as a private person. But DO NOT do it with the added perception of "authority" when all you're doing is providing one more personal squeak to the cacophony.

    Ralph E. Luker - 12/10/2007

    Professor Troy conflates two very different situations: a) one in which, hypothetically, a professional organization of historians endorses a particular candidate; and b) individual historians agreeing among themselves to endorse a candidate. Troy seems to condemn the latter by criticizing the former. In fact, *no one* sought to persuade the AHA, the OAH or *any* professional organization of historians to endorse *any* candidate. I suspect that *most* of us would agree that that is probably not a good idea. On the other hand, if Troy thinks it acceptable for individual historians to act politically, there's no logical reason why historians ought not so act voluntarily and collectively, any more that there's any reason there ought not be a Lawyers Committee for Thompson or a Doctors for Giuliani.

    J. Feuerbach - 12/9/2007

    Any group of professionals could join forces to support any candidate: psychologists, sociologists, economists, etc. Historians are no exception. I'm sure that there are --or could or should be-- Historians for Hillary, Historians for Mitt, etc, etc. People from the same discipline or profession AND who share the same political ideas, could get together and take a joint stand.

    My major concern has to do with those in our society who are easily influenced and could infer that all historians support a particular candidate because they only heard about a group of historians supporting a particular politician or, most problematic, that historians are better at picking the right candidate because they are experts in history!

    If you ask me, I think that supporting a candidate has more to do with one's ideology than with one's profession. I'd keep them separate. I'd simply join the political party that best represents my ideas. Now, if historians want to unionize, well that's another story!

    My 2 cents!

    Maarja Krusten - 12/9/2007

    Thanks for the nice reply. I don't know about academics being thin-skinned (you know your own community better than I) but I do wonder sometimes whether the fact that there is no margin for error in their formal writing and presentations sometimes affects the way academic historians conduct themselves in other settings. Based on what I remember a couple of professors once discussing on a H-Net mailing list, I'm guessing that that may be a factor in introspection -- for some. As I recall, a couple of posters got into a one of those debates that crops up on such mailing lists from time to time about the role of academics.

    You're right that one can't generalize, that's one reason I also referred to some thoughtful blog entries I've seen. Even on HNN, to his credit, I've seen Oscar Chamberlaign admit that what he thought was a factor in something he once wrote about informally in a blog posting turned out, on receipt of information from someone who knew more about the topic, to have a different cause. The admission certainly didn't diminish him in my eyes, I actually have heightened respect for Dr. Chamberlain for the way he handled that topics and the follow up post.

    I'm used to working behind the scenes with people from many disciplines so my work experiences generally are different from those who lecture in the classroom.

    Maarja Krusten - 12/9/2007

    Thank you Dr. Troy for mentioning archival issues as among important public policy matters. By coincidence, Dr. Cox at Reading Archives refers to what he believes will be a coming crisis in archival ethics. See his account of a recent conference at

    Gil Troy - 12/9/2007

    I'm most comfortable with individual historians plunging into politics as passionate individuals and as thoughtful intellectuals. I worry that when historians endorse as a group of historians, their implicit claim that their professional judgment justifies the choice unduly politicizes all of our judgments as historians. Historians as a group should weigh in on archival matters, university matters, even certain policy matters. But candidate endorsements are so speculative, playing this games seems particularly risky.

    Gil Troy - 12/9/2007

    Thank you Maarja for your comments and your encouragement -- it's always risky to generalize about "historians" or academics as a group, but allow me to elaborate on
    one generalization I made, and one you made.

    My claim about historians' unfair tendency to be condescending toward reporters comes from an impression many historians give of journalists as superficial, glory-driven hacks who are far less noble and significant than historians who are pursuing truth.

    Unfortunately, as you sense, today, too many academic historians don't recognize healthy self-criticism -- or engagement in constructive confrontation with those with whom they disagree -- as essential to the pursuit of truth. Stories abound about thin-skinned academics giving ideological or intellectual or methodological opponents the cold-shoulder and only engaging with like-minded peers.

    In fact, all academics could benefit by learning more from journalists, and more from critics.

    Oscar Chamberlain - 12/9/2007

    I'm of two minds. I think your concerns about historians taking group positions have merit. That may be particularly true when the bulk of historians are supporting a single candidate.

    On the other hand, I think it is worthwhile when historians engage the public. In the case of endorsing candidates, I think it is less problematic and more beneficial if some historians are debating others over the merits of the candidates. In the process of disagreement we are more likely to shed light as opposed to platitudes. That was one reason I was happy to see the Ron Paul posting last week.

    I would like to see more historians and scholars supporting other candidates, as well. I'm sure some do. In the end, I hope they speak out as well.

    Maarja Krusten - 12/9/2007

    Good luck with your blog, which I would guess is geared towards your fellow academics. I don’t know how likely you are to trigger debates among them by postings such as the one above. Judging by the response so far,I would guess not very likely.

    One of your fellow academics, Robert Maranto, published a commentary in today’s Washington Post, “As a Republican, I’m on the Fringe.”
    In reading the editorial and the comments it has drawn so far,
    it seems to me that the data offered by the self-selecting group of people posting largely is anecdotal. It’s impossible to tell from so small a sample whether direct association of professors with support for certain candidates will affect them in the classroom or not.

    As to why I doubt your fellow academics will debate your on this topic, based on what I’ve seen on H-Net and here on HNN, I have a feeling that there may be factors in the academy that discourage individual introspection — or at least vigorous public debate about one’s choices. That’s not to say it is lacking -- I’ve seen some wonderful reflections by academics about their profession in some individual blogs. But, as do politicians and Presidents, academics have a great deal invested in their job performance and the choices they make. They are as vulnerable to criticism as Presidents are because much of what they do plays out in public (in the classroom, in published works). People who work behind the scenes, as I do, face different challenges than do academic historians but don’t have to worry about being called misguided or worse, as anyone whose work plays out in the public arena (Presidents, professors) does. Whether we do well or not can be inferred by whether we hold on to our jobs but otherwise how we perform largely is an internal matter that is assessed within our organizations by our bosses and indirectly by our internal clients and external customers. Not so in the academy, lecturing and writing occur out in the open. I once tried to discourage a poster here on HNN from disparaging a professor’s core competencies, telling him that the professor had as much pride in his career as anyone in any other professsion. Criticism as the poster offered would be enough to make anyone gun shy!

    Again, good luck.


    Maarja Krusten - 12/8/2007

    Interesting post! Historians do not give up their rights as citizens but endorsements do place them firmly in one camp or another. I'm interested to see what responses your posting draws.

    The Hatch Act prohibits U.S. federal employees from running for office but states that they "may express opinions about candidates and issues." (The dos and don'ts for federal employees are listed at )
    However, to the extent historians sign petitions, I suspect academic historians are more inclined to associate themselves directly with a particular candidate than federal historians. Since I'm a government rather than an academic historian, I'm not taking a position on whether they should or not. But I would hope that whichever way they go, people who plunge into politics first consider the pros and cons. There potentially are individual and collective ramifications.

    Individual consequences are easiest to deal with -- whether they stick to their beliefs but later wish they might have done some things a little differently or remain convinced that they did everything exactly "right," most people of character "man up" and accept the consequences of what they do. As with many other professionals, there certainly is a place for historians to act as advocates in the public sphere.

    I've spoken out a great deal about issues affecting the U.S. National Archives since leaving its employ in 1990. (I used to be one of the people who screened Richard Nixon's tapes and files to see what could be released to the public.) When I polled members of the Archives & Archivists Listserv a few years ago as to whether I could go back to work for the Archives, the people who responded said no, I had been too outspoken about archival ethics, pressure from former Presidents, etc., for that to be possible. That's my sense, too. I'm actually okay with having shut the door to that choice of employment, although I clearly "left my heart" in the Archives, given the extent to which I continue to write about it. We all decide how to spend our professional capital. As long as we accept the outcome, most of us can be at peace with the results.

    The collective impact of decisions by groups of professionals is more difficult to assess. Whether it is fair or not, historians are as subject to stereotyping as members of other professions. Richard Nixon believed "Historians will probably not deal with me too well because generally they are on the left." As it turned out, some historians who self-identified as liberals did write thoughtful books about him. However, the potential use to which records might be put may have played a part in what historians such as John Earl Haynes and Eduard Mark have described as diminished record keeping by policy making officials.

    I actually understand why Nixon had the fears he did because, like it or not, perceptions do matter. I've raised on HNN a couple of times the question whether merely leaving a blogging trail of strong support or opposition to a political figure might affect a writer's later ability to persuade general readers to buy his book about the individual or time period in question.

    Are historians generally condescending of reporters? If so, why? I'm not sure we should accept the premise that historians are condescending of reporters.. Journalists are not in competition with historians, there's no need to play king of the hill with them. Good reporters, such as Dana Priest of the Washington Post, who uncovered the Walter Reed hospital story earlier this year, have different skill sets than historians do. They dig for information and develop sources while events still are unfolding. What they write about or uncover often has great significance and can actually lead the government to change course or enact legislation. Historians provide a retrospective look at some of those same events after time has passed. They are more likely to rely on documentary rather than anecdotal evidence, although oral history interviews play a role in history, also.

    I read with interest what you said about reporters' suppression of personal political views as this is a question which comes up from time to time during the live online Q&A sessions in the Washington Post. What you discuss also brought to mind requirements for auditors. Here is an excerpt on the section on Independence from standards codified in the Government Auditing Standards. Unlike historians, auditors are supposed to consider and even admit to the existence of certain impairments, if such exist.


    3.02 In all matters relating to the audit work, the audit organization and the individual auditor, whether government or public, must be free from personal, external, and organizational impairments to independence, and must avoid the appearance of such impairments of independence.

    3.03 Auditors and audit organizations must maintain independence so that their opinions, findings, conclusions, judgments, and recommendations will be impartial and viewed as impartial by objective third parties with knowledge of the relevant information. Auditors should avoid situations that could lead objective third parties with knowledge of the relevant information to conclude that the auditors are not able to maintain independence and thus are not capable of exercising objective and impartial judgment on all issues associated with conducting the audit and reporting on the work.

    3.04 When evaluating whether independence impairments exist either in fact or appearance with respect to the entities for which audit organizations perform audits or attestation engagements, auditors and audit organizations must take into account the three general classes of impairments to independence--personal, external, and organizational. If one or more of these impairments affects or can be perceived to affect independence, the audit organization (or auditor) should decline to perform the work--except in those situations in which an audit organization in a government entity, because of a legislative requirement or for other reasons, cannot decline to perform the work, in which case the government audit organization must disclose the impairment(s) and modify the GAGAS compliance statement."

    Again, thanks for an interesting post, it gave me a lot to think about (obviously, given my lengthy ruminations) on a cold, rainy morning.

    Maarja Krusten
    Federal historian and former National Archives' Nixon tapes archivist