History Lesson II: Sean Wilentz

In History Lesson I below I offered some comments about Princeton historian Sean Wilentz’s “sclerotic attack” (it’s fun to quote yourself!) on Justice Scalia on the New York Times OpEd page, along with links to longer and better criticisms by Peter Berkowitz and Juan Non-(Volokh). My more recent posts on academic history v. “law office history,” and especially Prof. Jack Rakove’s discussion of his impeachment testimony, with all of its self-congratulatory talk of historians as nuanced, comfortable with complexity, humble before data, etc., reminded me of Prof. Wilentz’s own somewhat notorious impeachment testimony before Congress, which I have just reviewed.

Complexity, ambiguity, nuance, and especially humility were in short supply. Here are a few excerpts (sorry, no links; quotes from transcript of the hearing in the House of Representatives on December 8, 1998:

I strongly believe that the weight of the evidence runs counter to impeachment. What each of you on the committee and your fellow members of the House must decide, each for him or herself, is whether the actual facts alleged against the president, the actual facts and not the sonorous formal charges, truly rise to the level of impeachable offenses.

If you believe they do rise to that level, you will vote for impeachment and take your risks at going down in history with the zealots and the fanatics.

If you understand that the charges do not rise to the level of impeachment, or if you are at all unsure, and yet you vote in favor of impeachment anyway for some other reason, history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness.

Rep. William Jenkins (R, Tenn) observed that Wilentz had offered only opinions, that he “did not refute one fact about the allegations of perjury that are before us, about the allegations of obstruction of justice that are before us, or about the allegation of the abuse of power,” and he added: “we need to remember . . . that what we’re dealing in and what you came armed with is a bunch of opinions. And like they say back in Tennessee, everybody’s got those.”

Wilentz replied:

There’s a difference between opinion and scholarship. Anybody can have an opinion. What I reported here has to do with scholarship.

This was too much for even the New York Times, which commented editorially on the “gratuitously patronizing presentation by Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian.” (NYT editorial, 12/9/1998)

Just the sort of nuanced, complexity-appreciating, humility-exuding historian to turn to for a critique of Justice Scalia in the New York Times, right?

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