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To judge or not to judge
How do you like your history?
Some years ago I was starting a book tour to promote a biography of Andrew Jackson I had just published. I attended a luncheon of independent booksellers who would get to hear me talk about my book and to walk away with a free, autographed copy. Most of the booksellers seemed in a good mood after the free lunch, and they lined up for their books, which I personalized for each.
But one fellow did not seem happy at all. He hung back at the end of the line and appeared to be glowering at me. Finally, all the others had received their books and he was standing across the table from me, still glowering.
I pulled a book off the stack, opened it to the title page, and asked him how he would like it inscribed.
"I don't want your book," he said.
I reminded him that it wouldn't cost him anything.
"I don't want the book," he repeated.
I assumed he had not stood in line simply to tell me he didn't want a book. I waited for him to say more.
Leaning close, until his face was about a foot from mine, he said in a voice that dared me to disagree, "I hope you don't admire Andrew Jackson."
I am an agreeable person by nature. I had particular reason to be agreeable that day with the booksellers, because they might help promote my book. But this one seemed a lost cause on that front.
I chose my words carefully. "I admire Andrew Jackson . . .'s admirable qualities," I said, holding the second syllable of Old Hickory’s last name before adding the possessive.
He snorted as he turned away. "That's no kind of answer," he said.
It wasn't the kind of answer he wanted. He wanted a judgment on Andrew Jackson overall. He wanted to know if I was for Jackson or against Jackson.
I wasn't going to tell him, because it was a conclusion I had never drawn. I am not Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, determining who gets in and who doesn’t. I think it presumptuous for any person to render such a judgment on any other person.
Yet I realize that historians render judgment on dead people all the time. I realize that my diffidence is disappointing to many readers. I am definitely in the minority here.
But I take this position for three reasons. First, there is that question of presumptuousness. No person can know any other person's life. We see only from the outside. We don’t know how the options looked from the inside.
We historians try to get inside people's heads, combing through old letters and diaries. But these are an imperfect reflection of their actual thoughts.
The second reason is that such summary judgments tend to reinforce what I sometimes call the moral narcissism of the present. Every generation thinks it knows better than its predecessors. We have finally got it right.
This is a horribly unhelpful way of viewing the past, because it makes it impossible for us to appreciate that people in those earlier times could be as sincere and honorable as we are, while engaging in activity that offends our moral conscience. Yet many of them were sincere and honorable, by their own lights.
The third reason for my not rendering judgment on the past is that it adds nothing of value to historical understanding. It has been my observation that differences of opinion about the past generally say less about the past than about the values of those rendering the opinions.
Some people thought Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was a good deal for America; others thought it was a bad deal. The difference in judgment had little to do with the facts of the New Deal, but everything to do with the opinions of the observers on the optimal relationship between individuals and government in the United States.
A similar observation applies to retrospective judgments on the New Deal. If you have confidence in government, you likely are a fan of the New Deal. If you are a skeptic of government, you probably think the New Deal was wrong-headed.
The way I conceive my job as a historian is to give my readers the facts that will allow them to make the best judgments they can, consistent with their own values. Those values are their business, not mine. I am an informer, not a proselytizer.
As I said, I know I’m in the minority here. Biographers typically render judgments on their subjects. In my book on Jackson - as in my response to the dissatisfied bookseller - I refused to give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, even while furnishing readers the information upon which to exercise their own thumbs. In a book I wrote on Roosevelt, I refused to say whether the New Deal was a good deal or a bad deal, although I explained why it was a big deal.
If you’ve read this far in this essay, I have a question for you: How do you like your histories and biographies? With judgments or without? Please comment below.