Imagine if professional historians commemorated the American Founding the way they honor colleagues who die. On the flip side, what would obituaries written by historians about their colleagues look like if they applied the same jaundiced perspective that they apply to U.S. history? Even if “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, the double standards of professional historians deserve some scrutiny.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education brought attention to the bias to which historians are prone when writing obituaries of peers. A survey of “In Memoriam” columns in the American Historical Association’s magazine, Perspectives, showed a proclivity to stress the deceased’s research and publishing over teaching. The historians featured had generally worked at research universities, and even those who spent their careers at colleges received praise primarily for their research.

The authors criticized this undue emphasis on publishing because the AHA’s membership is overwhelmingly oriented to teaching. Most AHA members contribute to the profession chiefly by finding the best ways to communicate the past to students living very much in the present. No easy task.

But the article misses another feature of these obituaries: the criteria they apply. When historians write about deceased colleagues, they seldom offer the same relentless questioning of power, privilege, and inequality that characterizes their ordinary professional work. Indeed, the AHA actually instructs obituary authors to appreciate “a fellow historian, including . . . [his or her] influence on colleagues, institutions, and their field.”

The author of one “In Memoriam” column from April 2022 wrote of another historian that “he was always the person to chat with at a conference reception” and he “loved to poke fun at the hypocrisy of the powerful [whether] in an ivory tower or the White House.” In the same issue, an environmental historian received praise for friendship. “People were magnetically drawn to her enthusiasm,” “unshakeable equanimity and good humor,” “her utter lack of pretension.” Another scholar, this one from the Ivy League, was known for his “humanity, integrity, and generosity.” Perhaps the second of those attributes reassured readers when they learned that this same historian had a “solicitous eye for the shy newcomer standing awkwardly in the corner.” In yet another “In Memoriam” column, the author wrote of his former peer that “he made me laugh till I gasped for air, or worse.”

Such is not the norm when it comes to reviewing the American past. In its 2023 “Guidelines for Broadening the Definition of Historical Scholarship,” the AHA clarified that “publicly engaged and/or policy-oriented work” should be recognized as a form of scholarly inquiry. This was the organization’s way of recognizing activism (in the form of writing, testimony, and social media) as legitimate scholarship.

Examples of such activist history were on display during public debates about the significance of the years 1619 and 1776 for U.S. history. The editor of the American Historical Review, for instance, judged that the 1619 Project’s elevation of racism and black liberation to the center of American history, while at times overly enthusiastic, played a useful role in understanding America’s past.

Yet, when the Trump administration sponsored a corrective to the 1619 Project through “The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission,” professional historians scoffed. In an official statement, the AHA deemed the president’s effort wrongheaded for ignoring “seven decades” of scholarship. The AHA also asserted that viewing the founders as “godlike men” who aspired to “universal and eternal principles of justice and political legitimacy” was erroneous because they excluded slaves, Native Americans, and women from participation in the American polity.

One might well object that comparing an obituary to the history of a nation is using apples to judge oranges. Yet celebrating a nation’s birth on Independence Day is not that different from honoring a person’s accomplishments upon their death. Contemporary historians are loath to let even a whiff of patriotism into their assessments. This raises the question: Would it take the death of the United States for historians to honor and pay tribute to the country?

At a time when the American public either mindlessly mythologizes or self-righteously demonizes the United States, historians need to find their better angels—namely, the ones they reserve for their deceased colleagues. The AHA has counted as members many distinguished scholars who managed to pay tribute to the United States even as they noted its imperfections. Let us remember them and follow their example.

Photo: Wil Etheredge / iStock / Getty Images Plus


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