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Should The Historian Make Moral Judgments?
By no means, said W. H. Prescott. Absolutely, said Lord Acton. The question remains hard—and intriguing
February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
No, the historian is not God; he is a man and like other men. He confesses most of the failings, responds to most of the pressures, succumbs to most of the temptations that afflict his fellow men. Consciously or unconsciously, he is almost always taking sides. Can we really trust Carlyle on Cromwell or Motley on Philip II, or Charles A. Beard on the causes of the Civil War, or Vernon Parrington on John Marshall? Can we trust either Macaulay or Winston Churchill to write impartially about the Duke of Marlborough? Can we trust Lord Acton or Benedetto Croce on a subject so close to their hearts as the history of liberty? Clearly we cannot. The historian, like the judge, the priest, or the statesman, is a creature of his race, nationality, religion, class, of his inheritance and his education, and he can never emancipate himself from these formative influences and achieve Olympian impartiality. Where he undertakes to judge , he does not even have the prop of professional training and traditions to sustain him, as he does when he records and reconstructs. And because not even a Ranke, not even a Mommsen, not even a Toynbee, can survey the whole of history, his forays into the past are bound to be haphazard and fortuitous as well. For purposes of reconstructing the past, that is not a fatal handicap; others will fill in the gaps. But for purposes of formulating a moral code and applying it systematically and impartially, it is a fatal handicap.
We may, then, accept the finding of the historian in matters of fact—always subject to subsequent revision, to be sure—but why should we accept his conclusions in matters of morality? “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ,” wrote Oliver Cromwell in his Letter to the Church of Scotland, “think it possible you may be mistaken.” Alas, the historians have so often been mistaken. Over the centuries they have stood ready to pronounce judgments which differ little from the tainted and tarnished judgments of statesmen, soldiers, and priests. Catholic historians have sustained the persecution of Protestant heretics, and Protestant historians have looked with equanimity upon the persecution of Catholics. National historians have almost invariably defended and justified the conduct of their own nations and as regularly rendered judgment against their enemies; more, they have themselves provided the arguments for chauvinistic nationalism, imperialism, and militarism. No wonder that the chief preoccupation of the historian in our day is revision!
We come then to a fourth consideration, practical rather than philosophical: moral judgment in history is futile. Surely, say those who insist that the historian be a judge, it is proper that the historian reprobate the Inquisition and exalt tolerance, that he deplore slavery and celebrate freedom, that he execrate Hitler and Nazi genocide and rejoice in the triumph of the forces of liberation. But why should the historian go out of his way to condemn or to praise these things? The assumption behind this expectation is that the reader has no mind of his own, no moral standards, no capacity to exercise judgment; that, incapable of distinguishing between slavery and freedom, persecution and tolerance, he depends upon the historian to do this for him. Are those mature enough to read serious histories really so obtuse that they cannot draw conclusions from the facts that are submitted to them? Is there really any danger that students will yearn for slavery or rejoice in the Inquisition or admire Philip II or Adolf Hitler if the historian does not bustle in and set them right? Alas! if the reader does not know that Hitler was a moral monster and that the murder of six million Jews was a moral outrage, nothing the historian can say will set him right; if he does not know in his bones that slavery corrupts both slave and master, nothing the historian can say will enlighten him. Is there not, indeed, some danger that if the historian continually usurps the role of judge, the reader may react against his judgments; that if the historian insists on treating his readers as morally incompetent, they may turn away from history altogether to some more mature form of literature?