March 20, 2004

Three Views of History and Politics

Posted by Ed

Have you ever doubted that the public's understanding of the past helps shape politics in the present? (I hope not. That would be kind of dumb...) Three articles I've read today cast light on this issue. The first, published in this morning's New York Times, describes how Spaniards from both the left and the right have sought to rewrite the history of their country's civil war to further their political goals. The second article, from The Guardian, discusses recent statements by Nobel leaureate V.S. Naipaul that seem to endorse the ruling Hindu nationalist party in India--and that call his vision of Indian history into question.

But the article that interested me most was an essay by Sean Wilentz in the current New Republic, reviewing Gary Wills's new book on Thomas Jefferson and a recent history of George Washington's slave-holding practices. The article is a fascinating read. It sometimes verges on pettiness--Wilentz criticizes everyone from Edmund Wilson to Joseph Ellis, and I thought I detected veiled jabs at David McCullough and other prominent writers who Wilentz didn't want to address by name--but it presents its readers with fascinating details about slave life and 19th-century politics. Wilentz is harshly critical of historians eager to denigrate Thomas Jefferson, arguing that on the slavery question a "public hypocrite" like Jefferson did the country more good than a "private convert" like Washington, and argues that the strongest abolitionists in 19th-century politics were northern Jeffersonians, not Federalists. Wilentz's essay struck me as cranky but convincing, though I admit that I began reading the article with a predisposition to agree with him.

Posted by Ed at March 20, 2004 03:14 PM

Just wrote about this over at Cliopatria; I feel like Wilentz overcompensates considerably. There's something about Jefferson that seems to dictate that people either regard him as the essence or antithesis of American democracy, when it seems to me he was both at once, always.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at March 22, 2004 12:08 PM

I enjoyed your Cliopatria entry (located here, for anyone else reading this who'd like to see it), and your analysis of Wilentz's take on Jefferson seems quite right to me.

Even so, when you get past the crankiness, I think Wilentz's essay helps show just how complex (and fascinating) 19th-century U.S. politics really was. I hadn't been aware of the rise of a northern Jeffersonianism that featured many of the strongest opponents of slavery in electoral politics--but a quick look suggests that this was a development that Wilentz is correct to point to. His discussion of the role of the House and Senate in congressional debates over slavery is also a nice answer to Wills and an effective demonstration that we can't just blame the South for the peculiar institution., (I also liked the way he put Washington's decision to free his slaves in the context of other slave-owners at the time of teh revolution.)

The problem with the essay is that it's just a little too petty and a little too cranky. You're correct that Wilentz overcompensates when he defends Jefferson from his critics; he points out that many modern-day critiques of Jefferson sound like they come straight from the most elitist of arch Federalists, without realizing that his own defense of Jefferson sometimes loses perspective. (Nevertheless, his defense of Jefferson still sounds more convincing than, say, what I've read of Wills's and Conor Cruise O'Brien's accounts of Jefferson.) He's also too quick to include gratuitous digs at people like Edmund Wilson. Whenever I read one of his pettier-sounding criticisms of other writers or one of his more insistent defenses of Jefferson, I took what he wrote with a grain of salt and skipped ahead to something more itneresting.

I tend to think that the pro-Federalist bias of certain contemporary historians has gone a little far, so I'm predisposed to agree with much of what Wilentz is saying. But i think the essay's biggest strength isn't Wilentz's argument in its most narrow construction (Jefferson was good!) or his eagerness to correct the work of various past historians and writers, but his larger portrait of how ideas and regional interests played out in American history. I doubt that much of what he wrote will come as a shock to an Americanist, but it struck me as a nice illustration of the complexity of America's past. if only Wilentz had dropped some of the polemics and developed the more interesting parts of his essay...

Posted by: Ed at March 23, 2004 08:11 AM

Goodness gracious, the sort of publications you read is so insanely pretentious...and it goes in this ridiculous progression...

Yes, NYTimes is pleasant to read...then, move on to the Guardian, which is BRITISH! FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! Then, THE NEW REPUBLIC!!! You might as well read the communist underground newsletter...

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