Should The Historian Make Moral Judgments?

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In 1847 that Boston gentleman and man of letters William Hickling Prescott concluded twenty years of labor on the history of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella and on the conquests of Mexico and Peru. It was a noble edifice that he had raised, the most impressive literary monument yet reared in the New World. So said Daniel Webster: a comet had blazed out on the world in full splendor. So said Lord Holland, over in London: it was the most important historical work since Gibbon. So said the great Alexander von Humboldt, who had embraced the entire cosmos. The Royal Academy of History at Madrid, the Royal Society of Berlin, the Institute in Paris, welcomed the Bostonian to honorary membership. And from John Quincy Adams came the grudging tribute: that the reader could not tell whether the author was Protestant or Catholic, monarchist or republican.

To Prescott that was the highest praise of all. Confronted with three of the most bloodstained chapters of history, Prescoll tried to avoid moral judgment. How easy to condemn Cardinal Jiménez, for his reliance on the Inquisition; how easy to denounce Cortés for the treachery and greed and brutality which accompanied the swift subjugation of Mexico; how easy to execrate the wretched Pizarro for cruelties almost unparalleled in the history of conquest. Prescott was not unaware of the embarrassments of impartiality: “to American and English readers,” he wrote in the preface to his Mexico , “acknowledging so different a moral standard from that of the sixteenth century, I may possibly be thought too indulgent to the errors of the Conquerors.” And he confessed that he had indeed “given them the benefit of such mitigating reflections as might be suggested by the circumstances and the period in which they lived.” Two considerations, not entirely consistent, stayed the intuitive judgment of the moralist in Prescott. First, the familiar argument that the standards of the sixteenth century were not those of the nineteenth, and that we should not arbitrarily impose our standards upon the past. “It is far from my intention,” wrote Prescott, “to vindicate the cruel deeds of the old Conquerors. Let them lie heavy on their heads. They were an iron race who periled life and fortune in the cause; and as they made little account of clanger and suffering for themselves, they had little sympathy to spare for their unfortunate enemies. But, to judge them fairly, we must not do it by the lights of our own age. We must carry ourselves back to theirs, and take the point of view afforded by the civilization of their time.”

The second plea in extenuation was broader—and more dubious; it was also more Victorian. It was this: that the cruelty and bloodshed which accompanied the destruction of the two great civilizations of the New World were, in a sense, the price of progress. The Aztecs and the Incas were, after all, backward and even barbarous peoples. It is therefore pure sentimentalism for us to “regret the fall of an empire which did so little to promote the happiness of its subjects or the real interests of humanity.” The Aztecs, particularly, “were emphatically a fierce and brutal race, little calculated, in their best aspects, to excite our sympathy and regard. Their civilization … was … a generous graft on a vicious stock, and could have brought no fruit to perfection.” We cannot choose the instruments or the vessels of the spread of civilization and of Christianity; these are often blunt and warped. But, over the generations and the centuries we can see that it is with imperfect means that progress works to eliminate the weak and the backward and to make room for the strong and the progressive. May we not, therefore, conclude that “it was beneficently ordered by Providence that the land [of the Mexicans] should be delivered over to another race who would rescue it from the brutish superstitions that daily extended wider and wider”?

The Reverend Theodore Parker—known in his day as “the Great American Preacher”—was both a scholar and a moral philosopher. As a scholar he was prepared to be indulgent toward Mr. Prescott’s histories, for, superficial as they were, they had their points. But as a moralist he had no patience with Prescott’s apologies, evasions, and extenuations. In two long essays in the Massachusetts Quarterly Review —which he edited—Mr. Parker raked Mr. Prescott fore and aft for what he regarded as moral cowardice. At every point in his narrative the historian of the conquest of Mexico and of Peru had excused, palliated, and condoned until, in the end, one was forced to conclude that his moral sensibilities were as calloused as his judgment was warped. Who was Mr. Prescott that he should suspend judgment over the hideous cruelties and iniquities of the conquistadors? Mr. Prescott shows little horror at these [Spanish] cruelties, little sense of their injustice; nay, he seems to seek to mitigate the natural indignation which a man feels at such tyranny of the strong over the weak. We confess our astonishment that an historian who thinks the desire of converting the heathen was the paramount motive in the breast of Cortés, has no more censure to bestow on such wanton cruelties, so frequently perpetrated as they were.

It is one thing to explain, but another thing to condone the crimes of the past. “Crime is one thing,” thundered Parker, but the theory which excuses, defends, justifies crime is quite a different thing, is itself not to be justified, defended or excused. We are sorry to add the name of Mr. Prescott to the long list of writers who have a theory which attempts to justify the crime against mankind, the tyranny of might over right. We are sorry to say of this work … that it is not written in the philosophy of this age, and, still worse, not in the Christianity, the wide humanity, which is of mankind.

What all this meant was that Mr. Prescott had failed to fulfill the high duty of the historian. The Reverend Mr. Parker made clear the nature of that duty. In telling what has been, the historian is also to tell what ought to be, for he is to pass judgment on events, and try counsels by their causes first and their consequences not less. When all these things are told, history ceases to be a mere panorama of events having no unity but time and place; it becomes philosophy teaching by experience, and has a profound meaning and awakens a deep interest, while it tells the lessons of the past for the warning of the present and edification of the future.

Parker’s final verdict followed unequivocally: “Thus, lacking philosophy, and having more of the spirit of chivalry than of humanity, it is impossible that [Mr. Prescott] should write in the interest of mankind, or judge men and their deeds by … the immutable law of the universe.”

Now let us look across the sea. It is forty years later, but Queen Victoria is still upon the throne and literature is still regarded as a moral enterprise. In 1887 the Reverend Mandell Creighton, Canon of Worcester Cathedral and Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University, published the third and fourth volumes of his magisterial History of the Popes . He promptly sent the volumes off to his old friend and distinguished fellow historian, Lord Acton. Acton was a Catholic, perhaps the most famous Catholic historian in all Europe. A scholar of prodigious learning, he took the whole of history into his embrace, including, needless to say, the history of the medieval church; his specialty was the history of liberty. Lord Acton had immense respect for Creighton’s scholarship, but less for his judgment. What disturbed him was that Professor Creighton had recorded the melancholy history of the papacy during the late Middle Ages without disapproval or censure. “The Popes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,” wrote the great Acton, “instituted a system of Persecution … It is the most conspicuous fact in the history of the medieval papacy.” Creighton had not made the fact of persecution central to his tale, nor had he sufficiently condemned the intolerance and cruelty of such popes as Innocent IV, Innocent VI, and Sixtus IV, who bore so heavy a burden of guilt.

Clearly there was a real principle at stake here, a principle of historical interpretation and even of historical philosophy. “You say that people in authority are not to be snubbed or sneezed at from our pinnacle of conscious rectitude,” wrote Lord Acton. “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men.” And then came the statement of principle: “The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history. If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party. … Then history ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the wanderer. … It serves where it ought to reign, and it serves the worst cause better than the purest.” Professor Creighton put Acton off with soft words, but to another historical friend he complained that Acton demanded that “history should be primarily a branch of the moral sciences.” But “my view of history,” he added, “is not to approach things with any preconceived ideas, but with the natural pietas and sympathy which I try to feel towards all men who do and try to do great things. … I try to put myself in their place: to see their limitations, and leave the course of events to pronounce the verdict upon system and men alike. No doubt Acton is more logical, but his view would reduce history to a dreary record of crimes to which I am unequal.”

In the quarrel between Parker and Prescott, and in this fascinating exchange between two of the great figures of English historical scholarship, the issue was joined, an old and familiar issue which is still with us. To judge, or not to judge? Should the historian sit in judgment over the great drama of the past and over the men and women who performed on that vast and crowded stage, exposing evil and celebrating virtue and damning and praising famous men? Or should he observe the historical processes with scientific detachment, and record them as automatically as a tape recorder, rigorously excluding personal, national, or religious considerations? Is he competent to perform either of these functions—the function of the judge, or the function of the impartial reporter?

The problem is difficult, perhaps insoluble. It raises hard questions about the purpose of history, the duties and responsibilities of the scholar, the nature of historical judgment, and the distinctions, if any, between what might be called moral and secular judgment. It raises questions, too, about the competence of any historian to judge the past, and the sanctions, if any, behind such judgments as are rendered. And it requires us to weigh the dangers implicit in moral neutrality against those inherent in moral arrogance and intellectual parochialism.

Earlier generations of historians were not seriously troubled by this problem of judgment. The Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides were surprisingly free from the urge to judge, but their successors in the ancient world took for granted that their function was to edify, to instruct, and to judge. Livy invited his readers to ponder the moral lessons taught by the history of Rome—as he presented it—and to observe how Rome rose to greatness through her virtues, and how the decay of these virtues brought ruin. Tacitus thought the highest function of history was to “rescue merit from oblivion,” and “to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a warning and a rebuke to all base conduct.” Plutarch, who wrote some sixty moral essays, compiled his famous Parallel Lives not to adorn a tale but to point a moral, and succeeded beyond his farthest imagination.

Medieval historians knew perfectly well what were the moral standards to which history was obliged to conform, and knew, too, the penalties of nonconformity, for what was history but the working out of God’s will with Man? Even the great eighteenth-century historians, Gibbon and Hume and Robertson, Rollin and Voltaire and Raynal, accepted Bolingbroke’s aphorism that history was philosophy teaching by examples, and they assumed that its lessons were moral and that it was the duty of the historian to point them. Only with the rise of “historicism” in the nineteenth century—there were antecedents, to be sure, in such historians as Machiavelli and Vico—did the question of the propriety and the validity of moral judgment come to the fore. Ranke, and his successors and disciples in almost every country, abjured moral judgment, or said that they did, and set themselves the task of simply recording what had happened, with a minimum of comment, and with neither ostentatious approval nor disapproval. Theirs was the ideal which Henry Adams later found so futile: “… by the severest process of stating, with the least possible comment, such facts as seemed sure, in such order as seemed rigorously consequent, [to] fix for a familiar moment a necessary sequence of human movement.”

There was bound to be a reaction away from this austere principle, especially since so few of its protagonists actually lived up to it. The Victorian era, which in Germany saw the triumph of historicism, was also the era of morality, of moral preaching in law and in economics, in politics and in history, as in art and in literature. It is difficult to know whether such historians as James Anthony Froude in England, Jules Michelet in France, Heinrich von Treitschke in Germany or John Lothrop Motley in America considered themselves primarily ethical leaders or historical scholars; in fact they did not distinguish sharply between the two roles. “The eternal truths and rights of things,” said Froude in his inaugural address as rector of St. Andrews University, “exist, fortunately, independent of our thoughts or wishes, fixed as mathematics, inherent in the nature of man and the world.”

That was Thomas Carlyle’s view, as well—Froude, rightly enough, wrote his biography. Listen to Carlyle—in his essay on Goethe—commenting on philosophy in general and historical philosophy in particular: To the faithful heart let no era be a desperate one! It is ever the nature of Darkness to be followed by a new nobler Light; nay to produce such. The woes and contradictions of an Atheistic time; of a world sunk in wickedness and baseness and unbelief, wherein also physical wretchedness, the disorganisation and broken-heartedness of whole classes struggling in ignorance and pain will not fail: all this, the view of all this, falls like a Sphinx-question on every newborn earnest heart to deliver itself from, and the world from. Of Wisdom cometh Strength: only when there is “no vision” do the people perish … Woe to the land where, in these seasons, no prophet arises; but only censors, satirists and embittered desperadoes, to make the evil worse; at best but to accelerate a consummation, which in accelerating they have aggravated!

Motley imported moral judgment ever more directly into his history; here is his final verdict on Philip II of Spain: There have been few men known to history who have been able to accomplish by their own exertions so vast an amount of evil as the king who had just died. If Philip possessed a single virtue it has eluded the conscientious research of the writer of these pages. If there are vices—as possibly there are—from which he was exempt, it is because it is not permitted to human nature to attain perfection even in evil. The only plausible explanation—for palliation there is none—of his infamous career is that the man really believed himself not a king but a god. He … ever felt that [his] base or bloody deeds were not crimes, but the simple will of the godhead of which he was a portion.

And, in case his readers might think that he had stepped out of his province in thus condemning the Spanish monarch, Motley added a word on the responsibility of the historian: When an humble malefactor is brought before an ordinary court of justice, it is not often, in any age or country, that he escapes the pillory or the gallows because, from his own point of view, his actions, instead of being criminal, have been commendable, and because the multitude and continuity of his offenses prove him to have been sincere. And because anointed monarchs are amenable to no human tribunal, save to that terrible assize which … is called Revolution, it is the more important for the great interests of humanity that before the judgment-seat of History a crown should be no protection to its wearer. There is no plea to the jurisdiction of history, if history be true to itself. …

In a Carlyle or a Motley, moral judgment was a form of self-indulgence. But there was more to it than this; there was high Duty! The clearest and most persuasive statement of the moral function of the historian came from Lord Acton himself. Eight years after his exchange with Canon Creighton, Acton was appointed Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University. In his inaugural address he once again exhorted his listeners—and all students of history—“never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standards of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives. … Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity.” “We have the power,” he concluded, “… to learn from undisguised and genuine records to look with remorse upon the past, and to the future with assured hope of better things; bearing this in mind, that if we lower our standard in history, we cannot uphold it in Church or State.”

All of this constitutes what might be called a moral argument in favor of moral judgment. In this view the moral laws are universal and timeless; murder is always murder and betrayal is always betrayal, cruelty and intolerance are always the same; the historian cannot stand above the moral laws, or stand aside from them, but must acknowledge them and participate in them and apply them. If he does not, he will fail the cause of morality—and of history as well—and forfeit the confidence and respect of his peers.

There is, however, another and perhaps more persuasive argument for moral judgment in history, one that rests not so much on moral as on psychological grounds. It is this: that the historian cannot, in any event, help himself, and that he might as well acknowledge what is inherent and implicit in his condition. He is, after all, a creature of his time, his society, his faith. Even if he resolutely refrains from overt moral judgment, he will surely be guilty of covert judgment: his choice of subject, his selection of facts, his very vocabulary, will betray him. How much better, then, how much fairer and more honest, to acknowledge his position in advance; how much better to call his book—it is Charles A. Beard who makes the point— An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution rather than to fall back on a title like The Making of the Constitution , one which “does not advise the reader at the outset concerning the upshot to be expected.” History is not a science and the historian is not a scientist. “The supreme command,” therefore, “is that he must cast off his servitude to the assumptions of natural science and return to his own subject matter—to history as actuality.”

But the stout champions of moral judgment do not have things all their own way. Not at all. Here comes a whole phalanx of historians with a formidable arsenal of counterarguments.

First, while it is true that history tries to observe something like historical “due process,” it cannot in the nature of the case do so. The past is not there to defend itself. We cannot recall the witnesses, put them on the stand, question and cross-examine them. It is difficult enough to render a moral verdict on anything so recent as, let us say, Hoover’s dispersion of the “Bonus Army,” or the conduct of the Vichy government, or the resort to the atomic weapon at Hiroshima; how much more difficult, then, to sit in judgment on the character of Alcibiades, the justification for the murder of Caesar, the conduct of the Norman invaders of England or of the Spanish conquistadors.

Second, while technical judgment is essential—in the law, in the civil service, in the university, in athletics—if society is to function, such judgment does not pretend to be moral but professional. A university professor who permitted his moral views of a student to dictate his grades, a referee whose decisions were based on moral considerations, even a judge who allowed his private moral convictions to influence his decisions on questions of contracts, wills, liability, or bankruptcy proceedings, would be regarded as not only incompetent but expendable. There are reasonably clear standards for such practical judgments as society requires—laws, rules, tests—but as parents, psychiatrists, and priests so well know, moral judgments present questions of labyrinthine complexity even when all the relevant evidence appears to be available. When it comes to history—the conduct of men or of nations in past centuries—all the relevant evidence is never available, and there are no universal standards. What the historian does when he judges is merely to identify his own “can’t-help-but-believes” with eternal verities. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes succinctly put it, “I prefer champagne to ditch-water, but I see no reason to suppose the cosmos does.”

If history “tells us” anything, it tells us that standards, values, and principles have varied greatly from age to age and from society to society; indeed, that they have varied greatly from one generation to another within the same society. Popes chosen for their learning and their virtue were certain that morality required that they put down heresies with fire and sword, cruelty and torture; sixteenth-century Europeans had no compunction about killing Indians because the Indians had no souls; learned and upright Puritans readily sent witches to their deaths.

Consider a problem which has confronted and perplexed American historians for a hundred years: slavery. Surely if anything is wrong, slavery is wrong. No social institution more deeply offends our moral sensibilities than this; no other collective experience induces in us a comparable sense of shame. Slavery, we are all agreed, corrupts alike the slave and the master; slavery corrupts the body politic, the poison still infects us.

This is the vocabulary of morality, and it is this vocabulary that we invoke, almost instinctively, whenever we discuss what was long euphemistically called the “peculiar institution.”

Yet when we come to pronounce judgment on slavery we are met, at the very threshold, with the most intransigent consideration—that generation after generation of good, humane, Christian men and women not only accepted it but considered it a blessing. What are we to say when confronted by the fact—a formidable body of evidence permits us to use that word—that our own forebears, only two or three generations back, embraced slavery, rejoiced in it, fought to defend it, and gave up their lives confident that they were dying in a good cause?

Clearly we cannot fall back on the simple explanation that all of these men and women—those who owned slaves and those who sustained the slave system—were bad. These beneficiaries of and defenders of slavery were neither better nor worse than their cousins north of the Mason and Dixon line who had managed to get rid of the “peculiar institution” one or two generations earlier; they were neither better nor worse than we are. Whatever may be said on practical grounds for the moral righteousness and self-righteousness of the abolitionists, it can be said that no comparable pressures weigh upon us as historians. It is absurd in us to pass moral judgment on slaveholders, absurd to indict a whole people or to banish a whole people to some historical purgatory where they can expiate their sins. Lincoln saw this, Lincoln who saw so much. The people of the North and the South, he said in his second inaugural address, “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

We can agree now, most of us, that slavery was an unmitigated evil, but we cannot therefrom conclude that those who inherited it, were caught in it and by it, who supported it and fought for it, were evil men. What we can say is that but for the grace of God, or the accident of history, we might ourselves have been caught up in slavery, and bound by it, and habituated to accepting it, just as our forebears were. What we can say is that if earlier generations—in the North and the South alike—bore the burden and the guilt of slavery, we have born the burden, and the guilt, of racial discrimination.

And here is a third argument against moral judgment in history—that the historian is not God. He is not called upon to judge the quick or the dead; indeed he is not called upon to judge. If he sets himself up as a judge he changes the whole pattern of his intellectual and professional role from one dedicated to objective inquiry to one devoted to prosecution or defense. As the distinguished historian of the Russian Revolution, E. H. Carr, observes, the attempt to erect standards of historical judgment is itself “unhistorical and contradicts the very essence of history. It provides a dogmatic answer to questions which the historian is bound by his vocation incessantly to ask: the historian who accepts answers in advance to these questions goes to work with his eyes blindfolded, and renounces his vocation.” And how interesting that Allan Nevins, who, in the first edition of his classic Gateway to History , asserted the necessity of the application of rigorous moral standards which “ought to be held absolute and applied equally to all modern ages,” and who cited Acton to his fellow historians with approval, later abandoned this position entirely, and substituted the simple assertion that “what is important is not to denounce Abdul Hamid for his crimes, but to understand what gave birth to Abdul Hamid and his policies.”

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?

One final observation is appropriate. We should not confuse moral with professional judgment. In the field of his professional competence the scholar has the same obligation as the judge, the teacher, the physician, the architect. The judge who pronounces sentence, the teacher who gives a grade, the physician who diagnoses an illness, the architect who condemns a building, is not indulging in moral but exercising professional judgment. So the historian who, after painstaking study of all available evidence and after cleansing himself of all the perilous stuff which might distort his vision, concludes that Lee was correct in his decision to surrender at Appomattox rather than fight it out in the West, that Roosevelt was not responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor, that the conduct of the Crimean War was characterized by criminal folly, that the violation of Belgian neutrality in 1914 was an error of the first magnitude, that Cavour rather than Garibaldi deserves credit for Italian unification, that Shakespeare and not Bacon wrote Hamlet, and that the Protocols of Zion are forgeries, is performing his professional duty. He may be mistaken—but so may the judge, the teacher, the physician—that is a chance society takes. His judgments may have moral overtones—it is difficult to keep those out, and we have learned to discount them. It is equally exasperating to discover that scholars who may know more about their subjects than anyone in the world are still unwilling to share their interpretations or their conclusions with their readers. We want professional judgments from a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer; and we have a right to professional judgments from a scholar as well.