The Frailty of Historical Truth: Learning Why Historians Inevitably Err

By David Lowenthal “How tiresome are the endless anecdotes about [William Best] Hesseltine, his seminar, and his students,” wrote Wisconsin editor Paul Hass.1 Yet the unsung historiographical lessons that seminar imparted to me and others richly merit recording. By scanning our mentors’ publications in skeptical depth, students learned that hidden bias always skews evidence, that secondary sources are ipso facto unreliable, and that myriad minor errors betoken major sins. Still more, they learned that even paragons do not have enough time, patience, or probity to prevent all such lapses and avoid their egregious epistemic consequences. Historians ever stumble on feet of clay. How tiresome are the endless anecdotes about [William Best] Hesseltine, his seminar, and his students,” wrote Wisconsin editor Paul Hass.1 Yet the unsung historiographical lessons that seminar imparted to me and others richly merit recording. By scanning our mentors’ publications in skeptical depth, students learned that hidden bias always skews evidence, that secondary sources are ipso facto unreliable, and that myriad minor errors betoken major sins. Still more, they learned that even paragons do not have enough time, patience, or probity to prevent all such lapses and avoid their egregious epistemic consequences. Historians ever stumble on feet of clay. At the University of Wisconsin from 1932 until his death in 1963, Hesseltine was a renowned chronicler of the Civil War and its aftermath, whose “commandments” on historical writing are still often cited. His anathemas forbade the passive voice, the present tense, designating persons by their last names only, and quoting from secondary sources. He inveighed against the rising tide of pompous impedimenta: “do not discuss thy methodology”; “write about thy subject and not about the documents concerning thy subject”; “fight all thy battles in the footnotes.” And––pertinent in today’s Wiedergutmachung spate of apology, tempting historians to turn moralist—”thou shalt not pass judgments on mankind in general nor … pardon anyone for anything.” 2 A retrospective celebrant prized Hesseltine’s “strange blend of pacifism, anarchism, Menckenism, Calvinism, and sheer naked perversity.”3”

[From The Art of History column in the March 2013 issue of Perspectives on History]

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