The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past

The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past

The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past

The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past

Synopsis

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist's view of how the study of history is our key to understanding the present.

Excerpt

If American civilization had a starting point, it was that crystallizing moment in the summer of 1776 when three great men in Philadelphia drafted the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, Adams and Franklin appealed to recent history to justify the act of rebellion against the king of England. That the history they invoked was highly colored and tendentious ("He has sent hither swarms of officials to harass our people and eat out their substance") is beside the point. America was, almost uniquely, a consciously historical creation--a "new order of the ages" caused by a train of events.

It therefore seems strange that a land so self-consciously historical in origins has so often resisted the historical mode of understanding itself or the world around it. I have puzzled over this curiosity for years, and once sought to explain it as follows:

The United States, in certain striking ways, has been exempt from the harsher penalties of history. . . . Most civilizations learn in a hard school to view present events warily, as portending calamity; accordingly they scan the past for precedents and keys to understanding and avoidance. But calamity has not been the common American experience. America afforded so much space, so much elbow room, so many resources for unpunished plunder, that the consequences of error have been mild--so far. Plagues, bombing, famine, mass displacement of populations, holocaust, these tragic instructors of mankind, even in our century, are happily lacking. . . . I cannot claim to have originated this theory. Variations on the theme of American exemption and innocence have been played by most of our major historians and novelists, from Henry James to Vann Woodward.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.