Historians Should Stay Out of Politics

tags: historians, politics, impeachment

Andrew Ferguson is a Staff writer for The Atlantic.


Anyway, it was an act equal parts self-aggrandizement and moral preening, and I’m not proud of it, and I wouldn’t mention it now except for a petition that crossed my line of sight the other day: “Historians’ Statement on the Impeachment of President Trump.” It appeared a few days before the House of Representatives went ahead and impeached Trump, and Nancy Pelosi even cited it in her own remarks on the House floor. Though impeachment is accomplished, the petition lives on, still collecting signatures. By now it has the endorsement of more than 1,500 people who identify themselves as historians, most of them professors of one rank or another, at universities of various reputation.

The thesis of the petition goes like this: “President Trump’s numerous and flagrant abuses of power are precisely what the Framers had in mind as grounds for impeaching and removing a president.”

When I first read the statement, I took that superfluous adverb, precisely, as a bad sign. No one knows precisely what the Framers had in mind when it comes to impeachable offenses, and if we did, we could be sure it didn’t involve transcontinental telephone calls, gaga theories about computer servers, Javelin anti-tank missiles, or the sovereign nation of Ukraine, none of which existed when the Framers were framing away. Trump’s abuses and the kinds of violations the Framers thought were impeachable may bear a general similarity, or fall into the same general category, but that’s a different matter. Precision, we see early on, is precisely what the historians are not after.

The sloppiness is important because the whole statement is supposed to be self-validating. It is a reflexive form of what logic-choppers call an argumentum ab auctoritate, or argument from authority. The idea is to prove a disputed claim by pointing out that some expert or other authority believes the claim to be true. It’s a bogus but very popular trick. Trump loves it, and uses it more adamantly the more outlandish his assertions get. The authority he cites most often is “everybody.” “Many, many dogs can be taught to play poker,” he will yell to reporters on the White House lawn, his hand slicing the air as a waiting helicopter whirrs away. “Everybody knows it.” The historians are not much more reassuring. Their authority for their statement is them.

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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