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"Indeed, the rage of theorists to make constitutions a vehicle for the conveyance of their own crude, and visionary aphorisms of government, requires to be guarded against with the most unceasing vigilance."
     -- Joseph Story
     Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States
     Book III, § 1857.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Instapundit points to this story on problems in the History profession.

From what I've seen lately, the biggest problem with this profession is that it has wrapped itself up in a personalities cult. Historians want to pick out a single person and write about him as the prime mover of this, that, or the other great historical event or trend. The problem is, in this country, the primum mobile is the people itself, and only rarely will a great historical event or trend not bear too many fingerprints to catalogue.

Take, as an example, David McCullough's very successful biography of John Adams. McCullough's readers may be forgiven if they conclude, from his writing, that Adams singlehandedly touched off the American Revolution. Other authors as relentlessly tout their own favored candidates for that same honor. The trouble is, it belongs to none of them. The people itself was so thoroughly fed up with the Crown, that, when it came to revolution, only about a third of the populace cared to stand against it. The great men of the day, great as they were, were not an avant garde; more often than not, they lagged the trend in public opinion, and took up the Revolution only when it had become the only practical course remaining to them. It is well known, for example, that the members of the New York delegation to the convention in Philadelphia in 1776 had firm instructions from their Legislature, prohibiting them from agreeing to a course that would establish American independence. Why should this be, unless independence were already on everyone's mind? Our independence was the people's vision, not the Founding Fathers'; it is sufficient honor to them that they achieved it, without trying to scrape up every particle of its imagining and dump it upon the head of one man. But this is an inconvenient fact for a historian caught up in personality-worship.

It's not so much that they can't see the forest for the trees, as that the forest is already well mapped, and they want to draw something new. While there are many, many trees, though, that are well worth describing, none of them caused the forest.

-- posted by Clayton 10/25/2004 10:09:00 AM

Comments: 2

  1. On November 08, 2004 7:34 AM, Blogger Mark said…

    It's also interesting that this isn't just a historical tendency. People tend to act like the President of the US is analogous to a King, or that the President is the only truly important position in the government. I lost count of how many people lamented this election because the two choices were so bad - but the election was for more than just the Presidency. There were many local elections as well, and in many ways they are just as important.

    In essence people assume that the President is the prime mover of the country. While the President, as a single individual, wields a great amount of power he is granted that power by the people. As you put it, most of the things the President is held responsible for bear too many fingerprints to catalogue.

  2. On November 14, 2004 11:23 PM, Blogger Clayton said…

    I would say, instead, that both are symptoms of a larger problem, which is, that a large chunk of the electorate no longer has any knowledge, either of how this country is put together, or how its government works. But that's another post, for a later day.

    (Hey, whaddya know, an actual reader! This means I'll have to post more often.)


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