Ask the Historian #3: Politics, Historical Figures, and the Public Debate

One thing that is going to come up if we have any sort of involvement with history at all is dealing with historical figures who did bad things or do not fit modern behavioral ideals. These conversations usually get wrapped up with politics and cause a firestorm of public debate. The main point of this article is that history is usually irrelevant in any current-day political debate. Therefore, I do not push for political side-taking; rather, I advocate generally for keeping things neutral where history is concerned.

We discussed this a bit in the opening Q&A for this series. We said:

For events in our modern world, it’s appropriate for people who feel called to do so to denounce things which cause harm.  But people get confused when a historical figure gets brought into the debate.  The historical figure is not a participant in whatever modern debate is happening and becomes merely a vehicle for modern ideology. This causes more harm than good because it misses the nuances of history and character, building a narrative to be used for action which may not be grounded in the full story. (This can equally be true when attempting to put someone on a pedestal to make a modern political point.)

Tara Cowan and Hannah Cowan Jones

I also later on described why it is usually difficult and unhelpful to resurrect long-dead people from history to make a point:

Passing judgment from a twenty-first century perspective just doesn’t seem helpful.  Those who have lived before us had experiences, training, constraints, and pressures very different from our own… Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, “Self-righteousness in retrospect is easy—also cheap.”  It’s easy to heap coals from our throne of self-congratulation, and it’s cheap to seize the moral high ground at history’s expense in making it seem as though the world was two-dimensional and clear-cut in a way it (almost) never is.

Tara Cowan

However, this does not imply an unvarnished rubber stamp of historical actions based on an illusion that the person (whoever we may be talking about) was “a man of his time.” There’s more to the story than just the fact that times were different, because we’re dealing with people. I discussed the need for utter honesty in historical research and writing:

Acknowledging what has happened is perhaps most important.  This consists of stating the unvarnished truth.  Brushing anything under the rug is inappropriate when addressing history because it paints a falsehood.  Uncovering what happened is absolutely vital to understanding the past, and nothing should be covered up in an effort to protect any reputations or ideologies.

Tara Cowan

The two points, coming at history from a point of non-judgment while also stating the unvarnished truth, are not in contradiction. With the debates, complete with the desire to wring something from history, that seem to swirl around any historical topic, you would think that the two are logically opposed, but they are not.

So with that background, let’s talk about approaching our feelings concerning the behavior and actions of historical figures. How do we stay unemotional when dealing with an increasingly emotional topic? How do we stay fair to all concerned? How do we address the urgency that modern commentators place on our handling of historical figures? I actually have thought a great deal about this topic, because I sense the anxiety people on all sides of the issue face. I can’t solve the problem, but I can offer some approaches that I have adopted that have helped me through these tricky questions…

When we are dealing with complicated figures who make up the popular historical imagination, it can become overwhelming. This need to say what was good and what was bad or to reconcile behaviors can turn history lovers away as we throw up our hands in defeat.  It’s almost as though history alone among the academic disciplines has been turned purely into a moral endeavor, with the morality, of course, dependent upon each individual historian or reader’s own experiences and belief system. This is how politics get brought into the mix, because where we come down on an issue usually depends on where we fall on the political spectrum, even though history doesn’t really fit into that spectrum. Therefore, the arguments themselves end up being baffling and devoid of political rationality. And so we are left polarized, and most often because we didn’t sit down and do our homework in the first place to find out what the facts were (I’m talking about both sides), and also because we are bent on making history a moral endeavor in an effort to back our own goals or belief system.

I listen to several history podcasts, and I am constantly struck by the confusion and angst people seem to feel when a historical character does something of which they disapprove or makes a choice we wouldn’t make in the present day.  I see historians and the public puzzling over how so many things or people, who were otherwise making strides, could make contradictory choices and do things that caused harm throughout history.  It is a recurring theme, question, and struggle that I hear again and again as people deal with history today.  The solution is almost universally to condemn, from afar, hundreds of years out, such actions almost as a way to grapple with the horror of something now unthinkable, or at the very least as a stopgap measure when commentators don’t know what else to say and do. Condemnation (or adulation) are also often used as a way to make a modern political point, even when the connection is quite tenuous.

It is clear to me that this approach is not working. These political debates or conversations almost always get highly emotional, and nothing is accomplished. And what gets lost in all of this struggle is the history itself. Losing the thread of history and the facts that go along with it is a huge loss for humanity. We need to approach historical topics rationally, and we need to have a method of dealing with moral questions regarding historical figures. And I have developed one! I have five increments for thinking about people from history, which follow in the next few paragraphs.


Clara Barton. Hers is a remarkable story of her bravery and heroism as a nurse and of starting the American Red Cross. She was also lukewarm on assisting the suffragist cause. Barton didn’t oppose suffrage; she just didn’t go to rallies, lend her voice, etc. (although she certainly led by example). She repeatedly returned enquiries asking for her help with the 19th century equivalent of “not in my lane.” There is a body of historical analysis that would find this to be a moral stain on her character.

I think we need to check ourselves when we go down this road. Barton was doing the task she had been given to do, or practicing her calling. She was using her talents to the best of her ability to contribute to the world where she could. And there is nothing wrong with that. Frankly, I couldn’t see how she could have found a single second to have fit in anything else, which rings true for many of us.

But I see this sort of disappointment with people from history all the time, and the reason I call it baffling is: how could any person ever check off a list of all the good things they could have done? And when I ask myself what I have done to actively contribute to every good, humanitarian cause in the world, I fall abysmally short of that standard that seems to be out there for historical figures. And I would imagine everyone does. We can only do the things given to us to do, with the capabilities we have, in the time we have been given. This is how we live our lives in the modern world, and the standard for historical figures should be no different.


Frederick Douglass. I bet this one surprises you. He is one of my favorite historical figures, a very brave person who did amazing, ground-breaking things for abolition and civil rights in America. But he turned his back on the suffrage movement. This wasn’t a case of “not in his lane.” This was a betrayal. Suffragists put on hold their cause in order to support the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, in exchange for a promise that prominent abolitionists would support their cause when the abolition was accomplished. This was a promise Douglass never kept; after the Civil War, he made a calculated decision that the cause of equality for newly freed slaves was too fragile, too socially unaccepted at the time, to throw his weight behind another unpopular movement. His friendships with prominent suffragists never recovered from this decision to abandon their cause.

Do I think Frederick Douglass should be “cancelled?” Absolutely not. I think the whole story should be told, including the amazing things he did and the decision he made regarding women’s suffrage. Context should be given for both. Context will, more than likely, show the constraints of his time, which would highlight both the bravery of many of his actions as well as why he felt that his hands were tied in others. That is where history gets really illuminating, when we look at those constraints.


Thomas Jefferson. Who else? He was a huge player in American independence, expending great efforts in making infinitely better the lives of generations through democracy and actively supporting the trend of self-government at home and across the world. He also owned human beings. Despite the fact that both are true of many founding fathers, Jefferson has become the poster child for the American conundrum, causing a firestorm of academic and social debate.

What do we do with Jefferson’s slavery record? In the public conversation, there are two issues at play with Jefferson, one being his decision to continue ownership of the enslaved people he inherited and the other being his inability to free all slaves simultaneously while advocating for the freedom of Americans in general, which is taken as hypocritical. For the first, he took action (continuing ownership) that would ultimately make miserable, uncertain, and even ruinous the lives of many who were not allowed to leave his property to pursue of their own lives and happiness. There is no way to excuse that, and I don’t think historians should be in the business of excusing (or denouncing) anyone. At the same time, historians can illuminate why he made those choices, and that illumination can be revealing about history in its context, both in positive and negative ways.

For the second, while Jefferson did take some actions to attempt to end slavery on a large scale, he was not successful. Annette Gordon-Reed (again, renowned for her work on Sally Hemings, the Hemings family, and Thomas Jefferson), was asked what would have happened had Jefferson made a sort of against-all-odds stand against slavery. Gordon-Reed said that Jefferson’s career and his efficacy as a politician and statesman would have been finished. He would not have accomplished anything good. So he turned himself to the things he could do. That is a pretty profound example of context.

While not defending Jefferson’s flaws, Gordon-Reed, speaking in an interview on Ben Franklin’s World Podcast as to the perceived hypocrisy of Jefferson said that she thinks it is a little “unfair” to say:

“You’ve done this, you’ve done that…you’ve created a country, you’ve done all these other things—why didn’t you solve slavery?  And you compare that to us, as individuals… How much should any one person do and be responsible for? […] Think about how hard it is to do anything in the world, to make a change in the world, to make a difference in the world.  And here is a person who did lots of things.  And then to say, ‘You should have solved this problem, too…’  If I look at my own life and compare it, well, I haven’t done nearly as much as that, and a lot of people who are being supremely critical haven’t done nearly as much.  It’s hard to accomplish things in a lifetime.  And it doesn’t mean you aren’t critical of him and critical of the racism…” 

Annette Gordon-Reed speaking on the Ben Franklin’s World Podcast

And I agree with this. Basically, the same rules apply for this increment as what we have established already: after looking at context and constraints, we don’t need change the standards of behavior or heroism from what you would expect from someone in the modern world, and state the truth regardless of the ramifications in making someone look good or bad. In all historical honesty, we have to tell the whole story, even if that doesn’t fit into a neat narrative of good and evil.

The nuances of history and its people are profound.  No story is complete without its context, its beginning, middle, and end. We miss that when we rush to make a moral judgment. We might just be making ourselves feel better, when we never needed to put that pressure on ourselves in the first place. We do not have to make a final judgment on Jefferson’s worth. I’m not sure who told us we did.


I almost skipped this one because the same rules apply for this one as the others we have discussed. However, I think this category is actually where modern controversy truly begins. So, in usual fashion, we’re going to plunge right into that controversy.

I don’t want to use an example for this one, because placing someone in this category depends not just on fact, but on how you are historically placed. What I mean is, the old adage “what is one man’s fish is another man’s poison” applies here. Someone might, to one group, be the very devil because the person did something at his or her expense (I’m thinking of combat or occupied situations mostly), but if you were on the opposing side, you might consider that person a hero. For example, if you were an enslaved person during the Civil War, you would more than likely not have thought there were any redeeming qualities to Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was fighting a war to keep you in bondage and had dealt with surrendered USCT troops at Fort Pillow in a manner that was sketchy at best, homicidal at worst. You would think he should belong in this category. While, if you were a free resident of Tennessee for whom he liberated your civilian family member from imprisonment at the hands of the occupying army, you would obviously take a different view and wouldn’t want to place him in this category.

The same could be true for William Tecumseh Sherman. His name lived in infamy in the South after the war. He practiced hard war, scorched earth tactics in his marches. We can talk military necessity, but it was pretty serious, brutal stuff. A Southerner in 1865 would almost certainly place him in this category. On the other hand, if you are a Northerner, let’s say with a son in the war, and you’re watching the death toll rising, and you know the South is going to lose and just wish someone had the stomach to bring it to an end before more blood is shed… You probably wouldn’t want to place him in this category.

Historical record can give us the facts. Then we interpret them. Our interpretations are colored by our raising, our circumstances, our politics, our religion, our feelings. And I don’t want to pretend I have the perfect answer for how to deal with these things. But I do have two thoughts.

1. All people in the historical record are sinners. All of them hurt someone. That is, unfortunately to say the least, part of being human. I hesitated even to make these increments because I didn’t want to make it seem as though there are categories of humans. I believe that all are in need of grace. Equally. This is why I believe it is dangerous to make history a moral endeavor. It creates a sort of false reality in which we can say who was worthy of grace, and who was past it. This is dramatic, but this is the rhetoric I hear. Maybe there are belief systems which embrace this view; it is not mine. Therefore, when speaking of these increments, it is as a tool for viewing history as an academic discipline in which we discuss people and events. Because history is so emotional, the increments are a tool to be used to deconstruct the emotion that we feel so that we can get to the heart of the discipline of history.

2. History gives us the facts, which, based on sources, we find and use for the benefit of the discipline. In using the facts, we, by the nature of history being a story-telling process as well as a thesis-based endeavor, interpret the facts. In interpreting, we make arguments backed by reason and facts. In doing this, it is not irresponsible to make an argument about a historical figure such as “He/she contributed, perhaps more than any other, to the continued poverty of X group of people throughout history.” If that sounds like a moral judgment, it shouldn’t. This, if based in fact and reason, would be a historical thesis which is making commentary to add to a body of historical thought. It is only our reactions to such theses (and, yes, these are often driven by the actions of the historians themselves) which make history a moral endeavor. In these reactions we tee up, put on armor, feel outrage, and begin arguing. And that (again, unfortunately often helped along by historians) is when we begin the futile endeavor of categorizing humans. But if we can peel back to the history and the historical arguments, we can use these increments for examining and discussing events and choices in history (not as moral judgments). And in making those increments, I have found it useful to remember that most people fall into the first three. We really need to prove it to ourselves why we would be talking about someone in the context of Increment 4 given historical context. I had a person in mind that, in my opinion, should go into Increment 4, but when I went back and examined the historical record, I found that a strong counter-argument could be made to mine: i.e.: there were enough factors in defense or explanation of this person’s actions that I realized my own biases could be influencing this decision and that there were competing interests at stake. This approach helps with the heat of those conversations and is just really more truthful than our emotions-based drive to vilify or glorify.


All of this begs the question: But what about Hitler?

I know you’re thinking it. We’re all thinking it. I’ve grappled with this question in my mind over the course of many years. It’s not just Hitler (there are others). What is the proper theoretical approach to dealing with someone who literally exterminated millions of people? Exterminated them.

What are the approaches so far we have discussed when dealing with people who make us uncomfortable? Hard, unadulterated facts, leavened by context and constraints.

Context and constraints break down pretty quickly in the face of genocide. There is no context to a spontaneous, dictator-ordered holocaust that makes sense, no constraints of an era that can explain to a modern mind any sort of rationality behind a decision to do some things that have been done in history.

I don’t want to write this article without acknowledging that. And this to me, and nowhere else, is where politics should collide with history. Surely if there were ever a time for politics to actually weigh in on the actions of historical public figures, it would be here. The figures who do something so out of the bounds of morality and rationality that it devastates us utterly and completely on the grandest scale imaginable, and there are no redeeming facts. When these historical figures get brought up in the political debate, I never mind it, as long as everyone continues to speak with rationality and without hyperbole. Politics is the method by which we establish a government which will ensure peace, happiness, and prosperity for citizens, and to the extent history’s wisdom can help preserve the same, it is appropriate to use it.1

The trouble is, there is a tendency to push a lot of historical figures into this increment. But very few actually belong in this increment. I really mean that. In modern history of the subjects that make up the popular conception, I can think of five, maybe ten. No more. And this, as in the last increment, is where things get really sideways. Where history becomes an utter battleground.

The difference in this increment and in Increment 4 is that, with Increment 4 we weren’t talking about people who have totally abandoned any sort of moral code or sense of humanity in search of purely hedonistic, self-serving, and destroying goals. They, along with people in all of the other increments, may have taken actions at times where that could be true, but abandonment of humanity full-stop is not something that you see very often.

In most every situation, for the millions and millions of people who have lived before us, constraints and context is important. I cannot say this enough. If we don’t acknowledge that, we’ve missed the truth just as much as we miss it when we cover our eyes and pretend the bad things that people did never happened. There is no need to heighten the rhetoric around most everyone who has ever lived, because no benefit comes from it.

We want to learn from history, so we think there has to be a moral takeaway.  But you don’t have to put that pressure on yourself.  You can just sit back and learn.  When we do not try to wring lessons from history, we feel more comfortable with nuances and flaws and are able to listen to what history has to say to us (and maybe learn a lot more).

As I have said in other places, history speaks louder than we ever could. 



1. The same can be true for examining systems perpetuated by society that are detrimental to humanity, such as slavery. It is good to look at the tell-tale signs of why something has happened, because there are patterns in behavior that seeks to diminish humanity that could be helpful to note in order to avoid.


Ben Franklin’s World Podcast, Episode 117: The Life and Ideas of Thomas Jefferson, with Annette Gordon-Reed.