Historical Chutzpah

I refer to the latest example of politicized historians sharing their wisdom with us in the form of a petition, viewable on the History News Network and signed so far by over 1100 historians.

When last heard from, 400 or so historians (many of whose names appear this time as well) who felt compelled to teach us a history lesson revealed a seldom seen sympathy for originalism — they called themselves “Historians in Defense of the Constitution” — by telling us in no uncertain terms, and on their authority as professional historians, that the Founding Fathers would have opposed Clinton’s impeachment. Less covered in the press and unnoticed by Congress, and now largely forgotten, another 250 or so historians signed a petition opposing impeachment for the Monica-related perjury, obstruction of justice, etc., but favoring impeachment “for the illegal bombing of Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan.” (See Nat Hentoff Oped, Washington Post, 3/6/1999, p. A21.)

Now, over 1100 historians have signed another petition, and plan to deliver it on Sept. 17, urging members of Congress “to assume their Constitutional responsibility to debate and vote on whether or not to declare war on Iraq.”

We ask our representatives to do this because Congress has not asserted its authority to declare war for over half a century, leaving the president solely in control of war powers to the detriment of our democracy and in clear violation of the Constitution.”

I will leave to scholars more competent than I (many of whose names, by the way, appear on the petition) the discussion of whether all of our military actions in the past half century have been “in clear violation of the Constitution.” What troubles me about the signers of the petition is not their historical argument but their chutzpah: their assumption that Congress, and presumably the rest of us, should accord special weight to their views on the “clear” meaning of the Constitution because they are professional historians. It is, in other words, an argument from authority.

Some of the authority is well-earned. There are some eminent and many accomplished historians among the signatories. Still, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that they were impelled to go public less by the obligation to speak truth to power (“truth” being in short supply in academia these days, outside of petitions) than by their political preferences. The petition demanded a Congressional vote to authorize any war with Iraq, but it did not state an opinion on what that vote should be. Thus there may well have been some signers who support the overthrow of Saddam. But I doubt there were many. Although the profession of history has been less infected by post-modernism than some other fields, it is troubling to see how easily and often so many historians always find confirmation of their political preferences for the present and future when they look to the past.

Some of the authority claimed by the signatories, however, is more questionable, since many of them have no claim to professional expertise on what the Constitution requires in the making of war. Civil War historians or women’s historians or economic historians may be brilliant, and may be outstanding in their fields, but their recommendations as to what we should do, or not do, regarding Iraq are due no special deference. As citizens they have every right to express their opinions — and again, those opinions may well be persuasive — but they did not offer their opinions as citizens but as “the undersigned American historians.”

Especially given the academic scandals that plagued the history profession in the past year, a little humility would be in order. In that regard, historians would be well-served to recall the comments of one of their number during the impeachment controversy. The eminent Constitutional historian Forrest McDonald opened his impeachment testimony before the House as follows:

At the outset, let me say that I shall offer here no policy recommendations. Unlike the 400 historians who signed the recent statement in the New York Times, and which we’ve heard about today, I recognize that historians have no more qualifications for advising statesmen on current issues, than do, say, plumbers or radiologists. Our province is the past, not the present. And the past is what I, for one, am qualified to talk about. [Testimony 11/9/1998, found in Federal News Service transcript on Nexis.]

Say What?