For I Intend To Write The History Books: Part One

What is our response when we think about Winston’s Churchill’s famous statement that he expected the verdict of history to be favorable to him because he intended to write the history books. It may seem unusual to us that a first-class politician would also be a first-class historian, but such was the case for Winston Churchill, who has largely received the praise he deserved for his World War II leadership of the United Kingdom and for his prescience when it came to the Cold War. Yet Churchill’s double duty in both making history and recording it is far from unusual. Since Thucydides it has been common for people to be both the subjects and the writers of history, and notable examples include Caesar (for his commentary on the Gallic Wars), the Apostle Luke, and Charles MacDonald, author of Company Commander as well as a book on the Battle of the Bulge that he participated in and was injured in. In our present American society, we regularly see Democratic bureaucrats engage in the revolving door between service in Democratic administrations and politics and working in the mainstream media on the reportage of events (the first draft of history), engaged in the same dishonest rhetoric regardless of whether they are journalists or government employees.

When we write about events that we experience, there are opportunities and threats to our value as historians and chroniclers of these matters. On the plus side, we can often write about our own thoughts, feelings, impressions, experiences, and perspectives better than anyone else. Most of us, at least, know far more about ourselves and can present ourselves in a far more knowledgeable way than other people are going to be able to do. This is especially true when it comes to the treatment we are likely to get from those who hate us (I will discuss this more later). Yet there is a danger that when we write about things that matter to us personally that we have a strong temptation to slant the picture in our favor, to cover that which exculpates us but to damn others to serve our own preferred narrative rather than the demand of truth. Contemporary trends to downplay the importance of truth and even the existence of truth only serve those who wish to peddle lies by seeking to remove the guilty conscience they may otherwise feel for having deliberately sought to deceive others to serve their agendas.

What helps keep to keep us on the straight and narrow when we are historians who chronicle our own lives and experiences? How do we be more like Churchill and Luke and MacDonald and Thucydides and less like the average CNN or MSNBC reporter cum government propagandist? One of the things we have to remember when we write is that we will be judged by posterity. One of the most notable aspects of the founding generation of the United States was their awareness that they would be judged by future generations, which led them to write even in their private letters with a sort of formality that suggested their awareness that they were going to be judged. We see similarly that figures like Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were statesmen whose private papers show them working with the issues that would define their public rhetoric and leadership. Those who are aware that they will be judged act with a conscientiousness that ensures that this judgment, so long as it is a fair one, will recognize those efforts and look positively on them. In contrast, those who take for granted that they will be immune from future criticism act in ways that ensures that this criticism will be both fierce and just.

When we write as historians we are used to making judgments. What judgments we make, of course, depend in part on what sort of history we are writing. We can judge Lord Castlereagh, for example, as being a better statesman and defender of British interests in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars than were the British negotiators at Versailles after World War I. We can judge in retrospect the wisdom of decisions that people made in the moment not knowing what the future would be and relying on certain factors to be decisive in the success of certain choices. But we need to remember as well that we are subject to judgment as well. This judgment comes on several levels. We are subject to the judgment of our peers–other people whose writings can seek to critique our own approach, use of sources, argumentation, and conclusions. We are subject to the judgment of readers who may agree with, disagree with, or simply ignore what we have written. We are subject to the judgment of posterity itself, who may see in our approach a Whiggish view of history that has fallen out of favor or may see us as part of a narrow and time-bound tradition of trendchasing writing whose failure belies our teleological expectations of being on the right side of history. We are also subject to the judgment of our Lord and Creator, who is not capable either of deception or of being deceived, and to whom we must all give an account of our words and deeds.

How should we respond to this reality? We can despair that we will be in a position to be judged in the future that we will not be able to answer to, but such is the fate of all who live. We can ignore this future judgment and assume that our present ability to shape the presentation and framing of our justifications and propaganda. Alternatively, we can do our job conscientiously aware that we will not be perfect in what we do but that we will be as just as possible, as aware as possible of our perspectives/biases, and as interested as we can be in a conversation with other people who will be able to provide through their perspectives what we may be unable to see ourselves. After all, what judgments and critiques we make of others also reveal to others our own character and subject ourselves to critique and judgment in turn. Every judge of the present and the past is simultaneously standing in the dock facing judgment for the accuracy and justice of the judgments that we make. The more we realize that and act humbly in response, the better able we are both to judge and to be judged in the best way possible, with respect and honor.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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