The Use of History, Then and Now

During the first discussion, “History: Past and Future,” panelists at the recent AHI conference debated the ways Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson used history. For a conference organized by a history professor and a panel laden with historians, that question seemed fitting but awkwardly put. While everyone in the room knew what Steve Ely, the moderator, was asking, I chafed against the phrase “use history.”

By my conception, history is not a tool. History is not a hammer, meant to drive in nails of a particular opinion. History is not a screw, meant to fasten the agenda of a wily politician. History is a discipline, a way of knowing implicit in which is a set of practices designed to bolster our understanding of the past. That is not to sterilize history − all of its practitioners interpret things differently. Better put, Ely might have asked, “How did Hamilton and Jefferson use the past, if indeed they did?” While a small distinction, it is an important one to make.

There seems to have been a mixed reaction to this line of enquiry. Some on the panel claimed that Jefferson was “creative” with his use of “history,” asserting that the Virginian employed the past to assert philosophical principles. I do not doubt that these panelists were referencing the stock Jefferson put in the Anglo-Saxon myth, a Whig reading of history that drew virtue from an imagined past. Those who so conceive of Jefferson’s use of history inevitably go on to draw parallels to his legal career. A lawyer, they say, begins with an end in mind and then makes his case accordingly.  In essence, such a history is non-linear, guided more by theory than transpired events.

Properly responding to this claim, as Annette Gordon-Reed did, requires considering how Jefferson conceived of himself. Yes, he studied law with George Wythe and earned a living as a lawyer. When Jefferson thought of himself, however, that was not the primary image that he saw. By his estimation he was a scientist, a naturalist with a strong desire to understand the world as it works. This was the Jefferson who responded to the Compte de Buffon in Notes on the State of Virginia. This was the Jefferson who commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to go west. This was the Jefferson who wrote a Farm Book, detailing his agricultural inventions. His belief in the Anglo-Saxon myth, however strong, was born more from his tendency to state things in the boldest terms possible. That he turned to the Anglo-Saxon myth was a product of his French mind-set.

While the panelists gave comparatively less attention to Hamilton and his use of history, their brief discussion bears mentioning. According to the panelists, Hamilton saw war as an inevitable part of life. In the past, he saw a long tradition of conflict and unrest. From that tradition, he extrapolated about human nature. That Hamilton, looking backward, sees much cause for despair does not surprise me in the least. His very history was one born of tragedy, beginning in squalor on the island of Nevis.