What Historians Do

Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, is not a conservative. His ethic background is both Jewish and Irish, so chances are he is not a Reformed Protestant and so does not have a Christian w-w. He’s a Democrat, an egalitarian, and generally progressive. Plus, he’s a darned good historian and will not let partisan politics shape our understanding of the past.

For instance, he has been outspoken about the inaccuracies of the Sixteen Nineteen Project:

On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.

The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.

No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth.

The article goes on, almost in the manner of a legal brief, to do the historical equivalent of math assignments — show your work.

Wilentz was also pretty good about the differences between liberalism and socialism. In defense of Hillary Clinton, in 2018 he pointed out the conceit of Sanders claiming to be merely a liberal on the order of the New Deal:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt called himself a Christian, a Democrat, and a liberal. He did not call himself a democratic socialist, or any other kind of socialist. He was, in fact, no socialist at all. Nor was he a conservative or a reactionary, although many on the socialist and communist left charged that he was—including the Communist Party USA, which attacked his New Deal for a time (until Moscow’s political line changed) as American “masked fascization.”

The only Americans who considered Franklin Roosevelt a socialist were right-wing Republicans. “The New Deal is now undisguised state socialism,” Senator Simeon D. Fess of Ohio declared in 1934. “Roosevelt is a socialist, not a Democrat,” Congressman Robert Rich of Pennsylvania announced on the House floor a year later. Roosevelt scoffed at such talk, but in 1939 he paused to present a very concise political dictionary of his own. “A radical,” he told the New York Herald Tribune, “is a man with both feet firmly planted—in the air.” A conservative, he continued, “never learned to walk forward”; a reactionary walked backward in his sleep. A liberal, though, used legs and hands “at the behest—at the command—of his head.” The metaphor was poignant coming from him, but it also emphasized his point: In the face of all adversity, he was every inch a liberal.

In the 1936 election, FDR masterfully ran as an unabashed liberal and at the same time completely outmaneuvered the left and would-be populists like Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who, before his assassination, planned to challenge Roosevelt in the campaign on a “Share Our Wealth” platform. As Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks related in It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, the Great Depression “presented American radicals with their greatest opportunity to build a third party since World War I.” But Roosevelt’s New Deal, in its improvisational way, offered a triumphant liberal alternative.

The election of 2016 showed how confused these old labels and distinctions have become. The socialist senator Bernie Sanders, for example, rallying his supporters with a speech at Georgetown University in November 2015, offered a surprising definition of socialism, which consisted of a paean to FDR and the social protections ushered in by the New Deal. “Almost everything he proposed, almost every program, every idea, was called socialist,” Sanders said—as if the right-wing name-calling was the rightful definition.

Somewhere the ghost of FDR burst out laughing, while the ghost of one of Sanders’s other heroes, Eugene V. Debs, scratched his head.

What distinguishes liberals like Wilentz from Leftists like Sanders or writers at the New York Times is an attachment to the United States. He may not think it’s the greatest nation ever. But he seems like you could have a conversation about it. Wilentz would also likely be suspicious of newspapers and magazines that claim to be exceptional in ways formerly reserved for nations.

4 thoughts on “What Historians Do

  1. What distinguishes liberals like Wilentz from Leftists like Sanders or writers at the New York Times is an attachment to the United States. He may not think it’s the greatest nation ever. But he seems like you could have a conversation about it. Wilentz would also likely be suspicious of newspapers and magazines that claim to be exceptional in ways formerly reserved for nations.

    As Bill Lind said in “The Next Conservatism”, we can work with liberals, we can’t work with cultural Marxists.

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  2. You would have to stick a knife in the military industrial complex for it to even stand a chance…

    Like everyone always asks, “How do you plan to pay for that???”

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  3. With his adoration of an extraordinarily powerful progressive-Administrative State, his low regard for economic liberty and freedom of contract, his anti-gold positions (see his Executive Order 6102), and his court-packing plan in light of several Supreme Court decisions which did not go the way desired in his first term, Roosevelt may not have been a socialist, but he was certainly sympathetic to a fascist economy, albeit one of an America flavor. Roosevelt’s “liberalism” was modern — heavily statist — and not classical.

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