Commentary Magazine

Doing History

Some years ago, Ved Mehta wrote for the New Yorker magazine a series of articles on the practice of history. They were based on the views expressed to Mr. Mehta by several eminent British historians, and reported with what accuracy who knows. Bearing the curious title, “The Flight of the Crook-Taloned Birds,” the articles seemed to demonstrate, among other things:

  1. that perhaps some English historians are unduly addicted to behaving in a fashion associated with a place on the other side of St. George’s Channel called Donnybrook;
  2. that English historians must be intrinsically more interesting than American historians, since the latter achieve notoriety only through the occupancy or pursuit of public office while the former seem to stumble into it just by being themselves;
  3. that oral communication to an innocent-seeming Indian may not be the ideal means of formulating one’s views on history for dissemination to a wider public.

What follows is an attempt to clean up only a small corner of the area that Mr. Mehta’s broad brush so generously spattered. At one point he dealt with the views of E. H. Carr, expressed in a book called What Is History? The title implies a modesty not wholly characteristic of the work itself, which with greater accuracy might have been entitled What History Is. As Mr. Mehta puts it, “In his book, Carr unhesitatingly held on to his belief . . . that all history is relative to the historians who write it, and all historians are relative to their historical and social background.” “Quoting Mr. Carr (‘Before you study the history, study the historian. . . Before you study the historian, study his historical and social environment.’), history was not objective (possessing a hard core of facts) but subjective (possessing a hard core of interpretation). Each generation reinterpreted history to suit itself. . . .” So much for Mr. Mehta. Let us add another posy to the bouquet of Carr quotations. When “we take up a work of history our first concern should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it.”

The one-time shepherd of all historians in the United States, Dr. Boyd Shafer, former executive secretary of the American Historical Association and editor of the American Historical Review, instructed his flock that Mr. Carr’s What Is History? was “the best recent book in English on the nature of historical study.” We historians then were practically bound by pastoral injunction to browse in the intellectual meadow that Mr. Carr had so generously provided us. Already, perhaps, the reader may have inferred that I am in something less than perfect sympathy not only with the judgment of Dr. Shafer but with the statements of Mr. Carr, and with the point of view which they enfold. In this he would be correct.

Mr. Carr has formulated that point in another way. You cannot “fully understand or appreciate the work of the historian, unless you have first grasped the standpoint from which he himself approached it.” Thus he says, in order fully to understand his History of Rome, one must know about Theodore Mommsen’s disillusionment with the liberal revolution of 1848, Fully to understand his England under Queen Anne one must know that George Macaulay Trevelyan was “the last of the great liberal historians of the Whig tradition”; fully to understand his The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, one must know that Lewis Namier was a continental conservative.1 At this point in Mr. Carr’s disquisition, I ground to an abrupt halt. It suddenly struck me that there were two early Namierites, and that by a wild coincidence they were among the historians whom I had known best and longest.

The first is Robert Walcott, whom I have known for thirty-five years; the second is myself, whom I have known for a bit longer. Professor Walcott is a Namierite by choice; and I had watched with awe the incipient Namierization of the Parliaments of the early 18th century from close in, when we occupied neighboring stalls in Widener Library. I am a Namierite by grace of a reviewer for the Economist who years ago graciously admitted me to “the nuclear club whose first member was Sir Lewis Namier.”

Since we were both charter members of the Harvard chapter of the Teachers’ Union back in the 30′s, I take it that during his early Namierizing days, Professor Walcott was not a conservative. And, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he is a continental only in the 18th-century American, not in the British sense of the word. As for myself, I was once a member of the grievance committee of the then Red-infested New York college chapter of that same Teachers’ Union, and of four academic colleagues who were invited to my wedding, three subsequently took the Fifth Amendment in the course of loyalty investigations. And I am not a continental either. I am a Cincinnatian. Now if to understand Professor Namier’s history it is important to know that he was a continental conservative, to understand our writing is it equally important to know that Professor Walcott and I, two early Namierites, were not continental conservatives—or even just conservatives? If Namier’s attitude toward society is the first thing that readers of his work need to know, what effect did my ignorance of his attitude have on me back in the 30′s when, scarcely conscious of the fact, I became a Namierite?

And this brings us to another puzzle. Why should Professor Namier’s politics strike Mr. Carr, no Namierite, as important, and me, a Namierite, as unimportant? The difference lies in the questions Mr. Carr and I are interested in finding answers to. Mr. Carr wants to know why Namier wrote a book like The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III. For people with a taste for this sort of guessing game, amateur seat-of-the-pants psychologizing is less a vice than an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of raising the problem in the first place. I know this because I have had a try at the game myself in connection with Thomas More’s Utopia. My early questions about The Structure of Politics were of a character very different from Mr. Carr’s. They were as follows:

  1. What that is new does the book say about English politics in the middle of the 18th century?
  2. Has it got the story right?
  3. Can I make any use of the way The Structure of Politics was put together in the kind of work I am doing?

Suppose I had put those questions to Mr. Carr, and he had replied, “When you take up The Structure of Politics, your first concern is to know that Lewis Namier was a continental conservative.” I fear my reply would have been, “I can hardly conceive a less relevant answer to my questions.”

Mr. Carr has stated his purpose in another way. It is “to show how closely the work of the historian mirrors the society in which he works.” Now, if by the society in which he works, Mr. Carr means the vast tumultuous event-matrix of all human happenings during his lifetime, then like everybody else the historian mirrors it badly, because only a very small part of it can ever be in any one man’s range of perception. The sector of human happenings a man is likely to mirror best is the one he is involved in most, the society or societies, the associations of men, in which he indeed lives and works.




We need not embark on an arduous and uncertain quest for the society historians work in. With great wisdom and perceptiveness it has been identified for us by the federal government; and annually the Internal Revenue Service reminds us of the facts of life. Crushed and bleeding from the embrace of the Iron Maiden, Form 1040, we seek among the can-celled checks for some surcease from pain, and we find: dues, American Historical Association; dues, Organization of American Historians; dues, Economic History Society; dues, Renaissance Society—deductible. Expenses: meeting of Midwest Conference on British Historical Studies—deductible. Subscription, Journal of Modern History—deductible; subscription, History and Theory—deductible. Depreciation of library, almost all history books—deductible. Share of utilities for space used in the house for writing history—deductible. The United States government then has not a moment’s doubt about what society I work in. It says that I work in the society of professional historians. And as a neighbor of mine used to remark, “What’s good enough for Uncle Sam is good enough for me.”

An inordinate amount of what has been said about historians and the history they write has gotten into stultifying tangles because no heed has been paid to the fact that preeminently the society which professional historians are members of, belong to, work in, is the society of professional historians. Nearly all the competent history writing done nowadays is done by professional historians, people who are trained in and live by the regular practice of history as lawyers live by the practice of law, physicians by the practice of medicine. In these matters the very first line historians, like other professionals, draw is the one that separates the particular community of professionals from the rest of the world who with respect to law or medicine or history are laymen. Yet in face of the massive professionalization of the writing of history, most people who have meditated publicly on the way history gets written have not seen fit to make any analysis, much less to make a serious investigation, of the effect on historians of their membership in a society of professionals. What I would like to do here is to suggest a few of the consequences of that membership.

The most important consequence of entry into the society of historians is that the entrant is thereafter called upon to write history. To get history written is the only unique purpose of the society, the only trait that unmistakably distinguishes it from other similar societies. To get history written, not to get it taught. Academia itself usually makes teaching a condition of employment for professional historians, and since there are few other paying posts available to them, they teach willy-nilly, usually willy, but sometimes nilly.

The central institution of the society of historians is judgment by peers. He who enters the society of professional historians thereafter subjects himself to the judgment of the other accredited members of that society. This process of judgment determines the relation of the individual historian to that society which more than any other affects his chosen life work. It imposes on the varied individuals who are members of the society a common discipline by precept, and the other institutions of the society enforce that discipline.

One trait of judgment by historical peers sharply differentiates it from such judgment in the courts of law. The latter kind of judgment forbids double jeopardy. A verdict in favor of a man brought to trial on charges before his peers in a court of law is not subject to reversal at any future time by any authority whatsoever. The society of historians acts on a rule diametrically opposite to this—a principle of multiple jeopardy and unlimited reversal. At any time any historian may subject the life work or any fragment of the life work of any other historian to a judgment, and no statute of limitations runs against him. Thucydides, for instance, has recently got into bad trouble. The historian puts himself forever at the mercy of the present and future members of his society each time he emerges from the enclosed comfortable womb of silence into the cold clattering public market place of print.

The subjection of what one writes to judgment by one’s peers is not often pleasant, and the temptation to avoid it is strong. By not writing at all one can avoid it. But since the main object of the society of historians is to see to it that history gets written, it cannot tolerate evasion of this sort. To prevent it, the society in which historians work has adopted another institution of the English common law. Rather early, that law had to cope with an analogous problem. Unless a man would plead before his peers to the charges against him, he could not be judged.

To avoid the awkward consequences of this situation the common law employed a device called peine forte et dure. The peine was provided by weights which were piled on the recalcitrant to encourage him to face judgment. If he persisted in his obduracy, weights continued to be added until he either changed his mind or was crushed to death. The society of historians in its infinite wisdom has so arranged matters that the effective alternative to publishing and facing the judgment of one’s peers is to be crushed to death professionally by the weight of their indifference. So for the historian, too, it is “plead or die,” or, in another aphorism, “publish or perish.” Of course, just as the man before the bar of justice may plead and be condemned, it is not at all unlikely that a historian will publish and perish; still the odds, however unfavorable, are better than no chance at all, and for the man who never publishes there is no chance at all.

The mechanisms of judgment by peers in the society of historians are numerous and varied, formal and informal, public and private, written and oral. We can deal only briefly with a few of these mechanisms.



It is, of course, in the learned journals that we find the most conspicuous and noisy mechanism for judgment—the book-review section. Also most formal, most formidable, and most effective in the short run, but, unfortunately, perhaps the least accurate and the least competent. Why formal reviewing in the learned journals of the historical profession in America is so bad would take long to explain, because part of the badness is rooted in the very structure of the craft, while another part is related to the character, or rather a few characteristics, of American society as a whole. A third part of the badness is the result of remediable operating deficiencies of the professional journals which could (but probably will not) be corrected with inconvenience only to the editors of those journals.

One or two of the more obvious defects of the review columns of the journals as channels for judgment by peers, however, need to be mentioned. In the first place they move too fast. To a novice historian who with bated breath waits for two years after publication for the first review of his book, the notion that judgment comes too fast will seem ludicrous. What usually delays the review, however, is not the reviewer’s deep thinking about the book, but his avoidance of thinking and writing at all about a book concerning which he does not feel he has anything sensible to say, or his mere laziness and insouciance. Moreover, there are more reviewing journals than there are willing and able reviewers. Reviewing is an exacting, time-consuming, ill-rewarded skill likely to win the reviewer more enemies than friends, rarely undertaken by senior members of the society except as a favor to a friend, as part of a brawl with an old opponent, or more properly, and I suspect more frequently, as a part payment of the non-economic dues they owe their profession. Finally, the journals review only books, never an article, no matter how important that article may be. Nonetheless, and despite the drawbacks and deficiencies of reviewing, the society of historians needs an evaluation, however tentative, of the output of its members, and the writing historian for professional, practical, and psychological reasons does not want to wait indefinitely for the first shower of roses and/or dead cats.

Even before the long, slow drizzle of reviews of a book is over, the more loosely-structured and, be it said, more reliable judgment by peers starts; and in the case of articles these judgments are the earliest ones. A useful formal and public mechanism of this kind of judgment is the footnote. It is a splendid and versatile instrument which serves many purposes besides its ostensible one—that of indicating where an author claims to find support for a statement. Among these purposes is the provision of a convenient location for the payment of scholarly debts. The instrument of payment is not in its form quite as fully standardized as ordinary commercial instruments, but it usually goes something like “For a fuller discussion of the above point, see Wallaby’s solid article, ‘The Decline of Possum Hunting in Dade County as a Criterion of Evangelical Revival,’ The Florida Journal of History, 12(1947), 12-17. Robert Ryerson’s The Possum as a Frontier Phenomenon: Myth and Reality (Madison, Wis., 1959) is too general and too unreliable for use.” The last part of the above footnote carries its own warning. Those little devices are not merely organs of praise but instruments of judgment, and woe to the miscreant bore who had inflicted his incompetence on an irascible judge with a footnote handy to hang him on.

Academic correspondence provides a private, indeed confidential, but highly effective mechanism of judgment. For example, in answer to an inquiry Professor A. receives the following letter from Professor B., who on other similar occasions has proved to be a reliable source of information: “In connection with the opening you mention in Early Modern History, I have a few suggestions. They do not include Adcock, about whom you specifically ask me. His recent articles suggest that he is very suitably placed in his present job at Grand Guignol State Teachers.”

The life of the professional historian is the life of teaching, silent study, work, and writing, interspersed with brief orgies of gossip. According to Adam Smith, where two or three businessmen gather, there is a conspiracy in restraint of trade. According to the apostle, where two or three gather in faith, there is the church. Where two or three historians gather, there is gossip. When historians gossip, there is shop talk and when there is shop talk, there is judgment by peers. It goes on on the steps of Sterling or Widener or the New York Public Library or the National Archives or British Museum or the Bibliothèque Nationale. It goes on among members of the same department, and it goes on with somewhat enhanced intensity at those innumerable meetings of groups with a shared specialization into which the society of professional historians finds it convenient to fracture itself—the Central States Renaissance Conference, the History of Science Society, the Conference on British Studies, and so on. Here is just one very brief sample to show how it works:

“I have been so swamped with chores this semester I haven’t had a look at Frisbie’s new book on the Scottish Parliaments.”

“Don’t bother.”

The crucial judgments are considerably less casual, and the most careful and painstaking of them take place in the confidential deliberations of ad hoc committees and departments of history dealing with appointments and promotions. The better the department the more careful and penetrating the judgment. This I have reason to know because it is my good fortune currently to be a member of the department of history at Yale University. I remember vividly a meeting of the department’s permanent officers, its tenured members, some years ago. Should the department meet an offer made to one of its able young members from another university by promoting him to a position that gave him tenure? The small committee which had read all his published work and a manuscript ready to submit to a publisher came in with a split vote. Other members had also done some reading. After two hours of wholly unacrimonious debate, it was evident that the decision would rest on a judgment of the manuscript. “Well,” a former president of the American Historical Association said wearily, “it looks like we have to go and do some more homework.” So over the next two weeks some twenty-five of the better-paid members of the profession spent a very considerable number of man-hours reading the manuscript and arriving at their tentative individual judgments. They then met again for two more hours of deliberation before coming to their collective judgment. Thank God, judgment is not always, or even often, that expensive, difficult, and time-consuming.

Such then are some of the mechanisms by means of which a historian is judged by his peers from the early days of his apprenticeship until and even after his death.




As a structured entity the machinery of judgment by peers in our society is awesome; I can imagine that, Called to admire its intricate convolutions, however, some crude iconoclast might ask what purposes of any sort it serves. It serves as the foundation of two other primary institutions of our society. In the first place it establishes the pecking order. It operates as a rating device and develops a consensus among historians as to who’s who, and how who he is.2

The pecking order along with the movements of demand determines the going prices of particular historians on the job market. To a considerable extent it determines what according to one’s rhetorical preference may be called the allocation of the conventional rewards of academia, the apportionment of distributive justice, who gets how big a piece of pie, or the division of the loot. There are, of course, other means, some proper and useful, some sordid, for augmenting the conventional rewards of academia, but probably the surest over the long run is to write history favorably judged by one’s peers. Granting exceptions, most of the cushier posts in history’s corner of academia are in the hands of historians deemed by their peers to have written competent history.

Our peers in the society of historians then judge us by what we write and subject to peine forte et dure those who refuse to produce any testimony on which they can base a judgment. Thereby they aim to apportion the conventional rewards of academia in some more or less sensible relation to the quality-cum-quantity of a historian’s published work. Presumably this is the way the society to which we belong provides us with incentives to do our job, which is to get history written.

Incentives, however, are only important where the work to be done is dull and unrewarding, but historical research and writing—! A swimming eye and an enraptured set of the face becomes practically mandatory as Parnassus heaves into view with the Muses draped along its slopes and Clio herself doing entrechats at the apex. It is a pretty picture, but that is all it is.

A great deal of historical research and writing is stiflingly dull and unrewarding work. The vision of the historian as a sort of intellectual private eye, swashbuckling through a succession of unremittingly fascinating adventures of the mind, can survive only among those who do not destroy it by engaging in historical research. In fact a great deal of historical work is indeed like detective work, like the dreary, patient, systematic, interminable detective work that goes on in dozens of precincts and police headquarters, following dim leads down cold trails to dead ends, just in case; compiling large, uninteresting, and frequently irrelevant dossiers; and questioning dreary and dull sources of information who (or which) often provide not an additional fragment of a clue to what one knows already.

If throughout this harrowing grind our historian has continuously burned with a hard gemlike flame, it is only because God endowed him more generously than He has endowed most men and most historians with the fuel of enthusiasm. Take a stroll some day where the historical researchers congregate in a great library. Note the number of scholars bowed over their desks, their heads resting on their arms. They are not at the moment burning with a hard gemlike flame; they are not thinking deep and exciting thoughts; they are sleeping off their ennui. Their task—the task of historical scholarship—has bored them not to extinction, but to a merciful though temporary oblivion.



Still the research ends, the writing starts, and the historian at last tastes the pleasure of scholarly creation. Or does he? Well, if he has an aptitude at the management of evidence and a flare for vigorous prose, perhaps he does enjoy himself a good bit. But what if he has not? Then through sheet after sheet of manuscript, past twisted sentences, past contorted paragraphs, past one pitiful wreck of a chapter after another he drags the leaden weight of his club-footed prose. Let us draw a curtain to blot out this harrowing scene and turn to look at one of the fortunate few to whom the writing of a historical study is a pleasure of sorts. He writes the last word of his manuscript with a gay flourish—and he better had, because it is the last gay flourish he is going to be able to indulge in for quite a while. He has arrived at the gray morning-after of historical scholarship, the time of the Katzenjammer with the old cigar butts and stale whisky of his recent intellectual binge still to be tidied up. He must reread the manuscript and then read the typescript and correct and revise as he reads. And he must, of course, check the quotations for accuracy of transcription and all the footnotes for accuracy of citation. Then he sends the fruit of this labor to a publisher: and if he is lucky, the publisher accepts it, asking only a thousand dollars or so by way of subvention to cover the cost of printing. In return for this benefaction, the historian gets to read his handiwork again in galley proof and yet again in page proof. And then comes the crowning indignity, when sick to death of his own best effort, he drains the nauseating dregs of historical scholarship; he has to read the damn thing again and prepare an index.

And then? And then judgment by peers. For the unfortunate on whom the verdict is unfavorable, any connoisseur of the review columns of the historical journals knows the delights in store. “Dr. Thompson has thrown new light—but not much of it—on one of the more trivial episodes in Italian diplomatic history.” “Dr. Thompson has not chosen to mention my study of Bergamese diplomatic documents, which perhaps he has not thought it worth the trouble to examine.” “For an adequate treatment of Dr. Thompson’s subject we will still perforce rely on the five magisterial tomes of Colavito and Gentile published in the 1820′s.” “Thompson’s rather bold and unorthodox view on certain personal eccentricities of Adolfo V, the so-called Mad Duke, are by no means sustained in the more cautious and conservative studies of Best-Chetwynd, F. Hill, Spillane, and de Sade.” And so on, as one undergoes the capriciously-timed drip-drip of reviews in the historians’ society’s version of the Chinese water torture. Under these circumstances the society of historians wisely hangs on to the stick of peine forte et dure and the doughnut of the pecking order to keep its balky members pacing the treadmill that grinds out historical research.

Those who cannot contemplate with equanimity the foregoing account of how the wheels of productive historical scholarship are kept in motion would argue that history produced under conditions of labor rather like those of the more satanic early 19th-century textile mills will be worthless. Can men with little taste for historical work really do anything worthwhile? The answer to this question is “yes.” The notion may not make happy those generous souls who, confusing their wishes with actuality, believe that competence waits on dedication. It does not. There are lovable, enthusiastic, and inept oafs in our profession, and there are deplorable, nonchalant, and skillful idlers. When the latter are routed out of their sacks and driven to labor in the vineyard they always beat the former hands down in the judgment of their peers.




Readers who have not been distracted by the rhetorical arabesques of the foregoing from their effort to keep clear the lines of argument may have noticed some traces of ambiguity and equivocation. The central purpose of the society of historians, it was pointed out, was to see to it that history got written. The function of judgment by peers was to establish a pecking order for the purpose of facilitating distributive justice. And the purpose of differential distribution of the loot was to hold before historians the prospect of material reward in order to persuade them to dig hard at writing history. Thus judgment by peers was made to seem one of the mechanisms in an integrated series all directed toward maximizing quality/quantity of historical output. Somewhat closer scrutiny has indicated that this is not a very accurate account. Quite evidently, in the matter of encouraging historical scholarship, the pecking order and the allocation of rewards are on the opposite side of the account from judgment by peers. By its terrors the latter prospect discourages publication. It is to be hoped that the pecking order and the prospect of a good share of the loot offset the damage that judgment by peers has done. They work with it only in the misleading sense that an antidote may be said to work with its corresponding poison. Taken alone, judgment by peers does not stimulate the production of historical scholarship; it retards and strangles it.

Then if the purpose of the society of professional historians is merely to get history written, the sensible thing to do is to drop judgment by professional peers altogether. This would not, of course, necessitate giving up the real stimuli to writing history. We would retain peine forte et dure, the pecking order, and the differential division of the conventional academic rewards. We would even retain judgment. Only the judges would not be a historian’s professional peers. Republican historians would write history for Republicans, to be judged by Republicans; organic-gardening historians would write history for organic gardeners to be judged by organic gardeners, and so on, and we would hire a statistician, an econometrist, and a theory-of-games man to solve the problem of slicing the pie.

Yet even though the incentive system just outlined would almost certainly release a great flood of historical writing, it is doubtful that the society to which historians belong would be willing to settle for it. Despite the fact that judgment by peers dams instead of releases that flood, the society of historians will, I suspect, cling to that institution to which all the rest are geared, and since it inhibits historians from writing, our earlier statement, “The purpose of the society of professional historians is to see to it that history gets written” is incomplete. Completing it is easy enough. One simply adds three words: the purpose of the society of historians is to see to it that history gets written the right way. In context “the right way” means “the way our society wants history written.”

Although a rough consensus of the society of historians about the details of the right way to write history in fact exists, to describe and explain that consensus would take a good while. There is no doubt, however, as to the common opinion of our society about the goal of the right way. We want history so written that anyone who wants to know anything knowable about the past can find it out; so that where knowledge is possible, it will also be present; so that wherever one seeks footing in the past, there will be as much footing and as solid footing as the careful, patient, and imaginative study of the surviving remnants of the past by men skilled in their craft can make available. It is to just one end that our society maintains its elaborate structure of peine forte et dure, judgment by peers, the pecking order, and the differential division of the rewards: that with the exercise of reasonable care and prudence whoever chooses to move about anywhere in the recorded past can find solid ground and not continually be tumbling into bogs, quicksand, crevasses, and pitfalls.

A couple of specific illustrations of the force of the rules of the game—the guild standards, if you will—on the professional practices and judgments of professional historians may serve better than general allegations to illustrate the way the society of historians polices its members.

Before the Second World War a bright young Englishman wrote a thoroughly competent historical study of an English county in the 16th century. For more than a decade he continued to write competent historical studies. He had started out as a Marxist. (It was stylish at Oxbridge in the 30′s to be a Marxist. Radical chic is not an invention of the late 1960′s.) Gradually a cluster of peculiar changes overtook the young historian, no longer so young. Once a Marxist, he turned into a Tory when Toryism became modish. Once able to command the attention of his professional peers in England, later he commanded the attention only of lecture-tour audiences and of uninformed readers of the New York Times Book Review in America. Once poor, he became rich. Once a professional historian of considerable parts, he became the fabricator of careless, sleazy, incompetent, widely-sold potboilers. And his professional peers who had once paid respectful attention to the young Marxist paid disrespectful attention and then almost no attention at all to the aging Tory. Not because he had ceased to be a Marxist and become a Tory, not because, a former small seller, he became a big seller, not because, once poor, he was now rich. No, simply because he had broken the rules of the society of professional historians to which he had once belonged and on whose respect his self-respect ultimately depended; he had made himself into an unreliable hack. Professional historians had no occasion to refer to what he was saying about the past, because what he said was not worth referring to. So his later writings died a few months after they came off the press. As a professional historian he was in effect cut off in his prime—suicide or homicide or oddly a combination of both. In any case, the society to which he had belonged, the society of professional historians, showed a remarkable capacity for conferring early mortality on an erring member and on all his later works. As a historian he is now a corpse with a pocketful of money, scarcely an adequate recompense for an early demise.



The second illustration is more edifying. It concerns a young scholar, Professor Jesse Lemisch, who proclaims himself a radical historian. He has recently published “Radical Plot in Boston (1770): A Study in the Use of Evidence,”3 a twenty-page review of Hiller Zobel’s The Boston Massacre. Professor Lemisch’s view is unfavorable to the book. He charges Zobel with “proof by dint of no evidence or contradictory evidence.” Zobel argues, for example, that the mob in Boston was “‘controlled but in appearance unchecked.’” Yet the evidence says nothing of control and an abundance about excessive spontaneity. Further, “Zobel consistently avoids evidence against his case.” His case being that the Boston mob was manipulated, he fails to follow up clues, embedded in the evidence which he himself offers, that some of the Boston rioters were moved by a genuine sense of grievance, indeed perhaps by genuine grievances against the British troops. What he does with respect to the Boston mob he also does to the colonial leaders. He indulges in selective quotation. Thus John Adams’s serious alarm at what in his own words he construed as “the determination in Great Britain to subjugate us” by military occupation is reduced by Zobel’s omission of that quotation to mere “ ‘annoyance.’ ” Further, Zobel’s “ ‘positive identification’ ” of rioters in 1765 is based on “information from indictments—to which the accused pled not guilty and were never tried—for a riot which took place” during 1764. And so on.

From a reading of the review, two points to our purpose emerge clearly. First, Zobel takes a view of the behavior of the American colonials slightly more jaundiced than that of George III, and some of Lemisch’s animus in the review results from ideological hostility to a historical perception different from his own. This is clear from some of his asides, such as:

Can the lawyer [Zobel] draw from his studies of the preliminaries of a past American revolution no better “lesson” . . . than obedience, authority, the hard line. . . . It may be appropriate to remind the reader at this point that in the years following the Massacre such policies carried out by the people whom Zobel admires and on whom he relies for the greater part of his evidence precipitated revolution.4

With serious qualifying additions and amendments, I happen to draw from the recent “youth revolution” in the United States substantially the lesson of “obedience, authority, the hard line,” which Lemisch finds lamentable. Moreover, in Lemisch’s case casually and accidentally I have followed E. H. Carr’s injunction, “Before you study the history, study the historian.” Having done so, as a student of the sociology of knowledge, I can then understand Mr. Lemisch’s review of Zobel’s book as a manifestation of youthful academic malaise in the early 1970′s.

But second, with respect to the society of the sociologists of knowledge I am a mere spectator. It is not the society I belong to. I belong to the society of historians, and my membership in it requires me to attend not to Lemisch’s current socio-political postures in 1971, which I think will be ephemeral and which do not especially interest me, but to the substance of his criticism of a book about 1770. That substance, what he says about the uses of dubious evidence and loaded language, seems to me to leave Zobel with a good many tough questions to answer. If he cannot answer them, he or someone else will have to modify his account of the Boston Massacre not to satisfy radical historians, but to satisfy historians. That is what makes the note Professor Lemisch wrote on the copy of the review he kindly sent me almost touchingly wrongheaded:

For Jack Hexter,

from a radical asking some conservative questions about evidence and proof. . . .

The whole implication of Lemisch’s review is that there are no such things as radical or conservative questions about evidence and proof. Historical evidence is slight or abundant, dubious or trustworthy. Historical proof is difficult or easy, adequate or inadequate. Evidence and proof are never radical or conservative. Rather, they are part of the common language in which historians communicate with one another, the common ground on which they stand or fall. They are part of the discipline which, soon or late, the society of historians imposes on all its members

From the men who write history and are then dragged in fear and trembling before their peers for judgment we have made the traverse to the society of historians which in willing the end of solid footing in the past wills the means by which it is produced, and its quality policed—judgment by peers with all the pain it entails. But the society of historians is composed of the very people it drags up for judgment. In effect the society of all historians in general wills the torments that each of them undergoes.

Though many members of the society of professional historians would like to improve the efficiency of its institutions, odd as it may seem, not one, I think, wants to destroy judgment by peers. For however annoying it may be to historians as individuals, still knowing the deep-grained sinfulness of all flesh, they know very well that judgment by peers is what stands between them and slovenliness, pamphleteering, distortion of data, laziness, habitual inaccuracy, dullness beyond the call of duty, and a host of other evils which ultimately and cumulatively would mean the collapse of our society’s morale, the frustration of its ends, and therefore, be it noted, the failure of all of us in our calling. Rousseau’s conception of the general will as something different not only from the will of each but even from the will of all has sometimes been derided and often is misunderstood. I know of no better illustration of the meaning of the general will than its mode of operation in the society of professional historians in the matter of judgment by peers, where to achieve a recognized and acknowledged common good, by a general consent and working through general rules, the will of historians as members of that society imposes itself on the often tough and truculent individual wills of all its members.




The historical relativist and the aficionado of the sociology of knowledge profess to be profoundly impressed by the impact of Society on historians. On one side, according to them, there are the sources—the un-shaped, unsifted surviving records of the past. And on the other hand is the historian’s Society with a capital S, which is just about everything that goes on during the historian’s lifetime. Society screeches and roars and hisses in the historian’s ear. Each day it passes vividly and living before his eyes. It stinks in his nostrils, and pounds him on the head, and tramples his feet, and squeezes his hands, and tugs at his heartstrings, and turns his stomach, and kicks him, and pats him on the back. Of course, with his soul-filling experiences of his Society on one side and the scatter of colorless records of the past on the other, our historian simply impresses on the record whatever is most important or vivid to him at the moment in his current responses to his Society. One thing, however, he appears never to do: he never reads a book by another historian bearing on the historical problem about which he is concerned. In this respect unlike any professional historian for the past century, this Byronic character of the relativists’ dream is an absolute unqualified individualist. The fact is that for all their talk about Society, the relativist and the sociologist of knowledge wholly disregard the impact on historians of that society—the only society—to which as professionals all historians belong, and thus they miss the true social character of historical work. They disregard the extraordinary extent to which the history that gets written is formed by the society of historians acting through, on, and in the individual historian.

Most of the history written by a professional historian works within a dual reference system. That system refers him 1) to the contemporary sources used by the historian, and 2) to the work of other historians used by him, and he is obliged to certify his competence by referring back in his footnotes to the sources and the work of other historians. Under the strong safe cover afforded by this latter obligation the society of historians in arrayed battalions marches square into the work of each of its members. Where there is a “literature” on any subject which a historian deals with he is supposed to know that literature. But to “know the literature” is not to know all the books and articles related somehow or other to the subject. Some books and articles are obsolete, some are trivial and worthless. Some antiquated works will have fallen from the bibliographies and footnotes, or because of exemplary incompetence will never even have got into them. But the very tasks of genocide and infanticide which lead to this result have been performed for the historian by his society. Nevertheless, the number of works by other historians consulted in producing a single monograph often runs into the hundreds, so Mr. Carr’s precept, “When we take up a work of history our first concern should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it,” seems less a counsel of despair than an invitation to madness. In effect by this point in the history of history-writing practically all history is collaborative. The subjects which no historian has touched on before, on which no investigation, even tangential, has been attempted are negligible. Even if he repudiates all current views and regards all previous investigations as tissues of error, a historian must implicitly or explicitly counter those views and undermine those investigations. Even when he does not lean on the work of other historians he must specifically lean away from that work. And such drastic leaning away is the marginal case. The bulk of historical work involves modification rather than subversion.

If, from the beginning, a historian’s writing is “socialized” by the necessary employment of the work of other historians, at the end it is “socialized” again through judgment by peers. The apparatus of judgment warns readers of areas of weakness, indicates areas of strength, points to what is old and decrepit, to what is new and deserving of attention. Finally, and most important, the very prospect of judgment by peers socializes the writing of history while the historian is writing it. Knowing that his place in the pecking order, his share of the rewards, and his own estimate of himself depend on that judgment, he takes pains to do those things his peers approve of and to avoid those which they condemn. What they approve is imaginative compliance with the rules which help to extend the area and increase the firmness of footing for those who seek knowledge of the past. I can only once more express my astonishment that the men who have talked most glibly about the conditioning of the historian by his society have never done at all what is here done rather badly: examine the relation between historians and the society to which they belong, the society on whose estimate of them, their level of income, their standing among their fellows, and their own judgment of their life achievement largely depend.




In my penultimate observations I should like to indulge myself in the luxury of parables.

Once upon a time three men were considering going into the import business. Their names were Albert, Bertram, and Claude, or A., B., and C. They were inlanders who had never seen a freighter, so they came to a port to have a look around. The first ship Albert boarded was a miserable old tub. “What’s this hulk for?” Albert asked. He was told it was to carry freight. Then he went below deck where he saw that the ship leaked at every seam and that there were three feet of water in the hold. Albert shrewdly observed, “Sea water will damage any cargo this wreck carries.” And he was right. The second ship he boarded was in as bad shape as the first. “Sea water will damage what this wreck carries, too,” he sneered, and he was right again. Then he visited another ship. He went down into the hold and he saw an inch of water in it. Being a clear-headed man, he thought as follows: “All ships have some water in their holds. Therefore on all ships the cargo suffers water damage. Therefore it does not matter what ship you buy cargo from.” As a result of this brilliant syllogism he bought indiscriminately. Of course nobody in the market trusted his judgment, so even when he lucked into a good consignment he found no customers. Albert or A. went broke. But consequently among people not in the business, he became a sort of hero; and he was called by them an import relativist, because, they said, he had proved that all imports were relatively wet.

Our second man, B. or Bertram, was a more reflective type than Albert. He, too, inspected several freighters. Taking his clue from the seepage of sea water in all ships, he decided that freighters were apparatus for the collection of oceanographic information. A careful study of seepage would provide data on the nature of the waters which the ship was currently traveling, a sort of sociology of the sea, so to speak. This conclusion had drawbacks, however. On the view that the value of freighters lies in the contribution their bilge-water makes to the sociology of the sea, the leakier the tub the better. If freighters are mainly important for their leakiness, why do the better operators take so much pains to make them as watertight as they can? Moreover, whatever the contribution the investigations proposed by Bertram might make to oceanography or the sociology of the sea, they are of no use at all to people who want to know which freighters carry clean, dry cargo.

And it was to just this problem of clean cargo that C. or Claude addressed himself. Being a man of drearily systematic habits, he kept lists of freighters and checked their holds on several of their returns to port. He also checked with other importers and with underwriters whose interest it was to learn which freighters took good care of their cargo. He knew that even the tightest ships ended their crossings with a little water in the hold; but he also knew exactly how those ships were loaded, so although a bit of their cargo occasionally got damaged he rarely bought that part of it. Now he did not say that all imports were relatively wet; he said some were wet and some were dry, and that he could tell the difference; so the import relativists called him an absolutist and regarded him as naive. And the fauna and flora in the water that seeped into the bilge did not interest him very much, since what he really was concerned about was the quality of the cargo. So sociologists of the sea thought he was simpleminded and possibly a reactionary. But the other people in the importing line had a different name for him. They called him an old pro.

Here endeth the parable and here almost ends this sociological inquiry. To give a specious penumbra of legitimacy and relevance to my observations on the import business, I will finish with something about a shelf in a library. It is in the British History section. Adjacent to each other on that shelf are Francis Aidan Cardinal Gasquet’s Henry VIII and the English Monasteries (1888), and Geoffrey Baskerville’s English Monks and the Suppression of the Monasteries (1937). Now the historical relativist will smile tolerantly at this juxtaposition because it shows, does it not, what happens when you turn a Catholic and a skeptic loose on the English monasteries and their dissolution? You get just the difference of opinion you would expect, Gasquet all sympathy and Baskerville all sneers, and it is all relative to the social prejudices and prepossessions of the two historians. So it does prove, does it not, that Mr. Carr was right after all, and that when “we take up a work of history our first concern should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it”? The sociologist of knowledge, however, observes that the differences are very instructive, since they provide clues to the ideologies current in the 1880′s and the 1930s, although of course they tell you nothing for sure about the 1530′s. Finally, perhaps an old pro comes by the shelf of the library whereon Gasquet and Baskerville repose. Out of long habit he runs his eyes further down the shelf. There they light on four massive volumes, The Monastic Order in England and The Religious Orders in England. He observes as he examines them that the author of those volumes, the late Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, has taken the infinite pains that professional historians are trained to take, in order to keep his cargo free of the sea water of current ideological conflict. Therefore, the old pro does not need long to decide that those volumes rather than Gasquet or Baskerville carry the goods he wants to buy. In fact, all the professional traders have transferred their custom to the late Regius Professor while between occasional and increasingly rare charterings by enthusiastic and incompetent amateurs, Gasquet and Baskerville rot away at the dock. And, of course, it does not matter at all that the late Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, Dom David Knowles, was a Catholic priest and a Benedictine monk. Although paradoxically, in the context which at the moment concerns us, that it does not matter at all is what matters most of all.




1 E. H. Carr, What Is History? (Knopf, 1966), pp. 24-48.

2 For a more broadly based inquiry into the function of publication, see J. H. Hexter, “Publish or Perish—A Defense,” the Public Interest, Number 17, Autumn 1969, pp. 60-77.

3 Harvard Law Review, Volume 84, pp. 485-504.

4 Ibid., p. 504. In the review the last sentence appears as a footnote to the one that precedes it above.

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