J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Rakove on Reductive Founderism

Last month Jack Rakove reviewed Michael Lind’s Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States, taking a swipe at founderism:
Perhaps Lind is right, and sometime soon the challenges that our political system is now mishandling so badly will reach their apotheosis. In the meantime, the skeptical historian can offer a few reservations about his argument. The first has to do with the very concept of lessons. Historians hate them for many reasons, not least because they defy the underlying fundamental premise of historical thinking: that we study the past not merely to understand how the present emerged from it, which is the simpler part of our work, but more importantly, because it was so different from what we have become.

In the special case of the founders of our Republic, nothing could be zanier than naïvely assuming that we can pluck Hamilton or Jefferson or Madison or Franklin from their era, plop them down in ours, and apply their wisdom to our problems. The absurdity lies in this: the founders were deeply empirical in their thinking, deeply responsive to their experiences and observations, and deeply aware of the contingencies under which they acted. To apply their ideas to the present without giving them the same information we have—and thus exposing them to the same differences that perplex us—would turn their creative intelligence into a caricature of itself.
Lind isn’t a historian; his academic training was in law and international relations, and for the last two decades he’s been a political journalist and think-tanker. Rakove, in contrast, is a professor of history at Stanford, in addition to having appointments in the departments of political science and law. Their perspectives on Hamilton and how to write about him are necessarily different.

I agree with both of Rakove’s main points in this passage. Historians aren’t drawn to study the past in order to learn practical lessons but because it’s really, really interesting.

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