Historians for Obama, Clinton, and Now Paul

I have to admit to being just a bit perplexed over the recent public declarations of support for various presidential candidates by historians.  This started (as far as I can tell) over at HNN with a statement in support of Obama in which roughly fifty historians "signed".    Since then we’ve seen additional statements of support for Ron Paul and one lone historian who has come out against Obama.  I assume we should expect additional statements in support of other candidates and perhaps even a few retractions as the primaries get under way.  That’s fine with me, but I would like to know why I should care about any of this.  To be more specific, I would like to know why the respective allegiances of any of the individuals who have signed these declarations as historians ought to matter.  For example, I noticed that James McPherson signed the Obama statement.  I’ve never met McPherson nor do I know anything about his voting history or specific political beliefs and I have to admit that I don’t really care.  The same holds true for all the signers.  The statement is fairly clear as to why these historians are casting their lot with Obama and I actually agree with a few of the points.  That said, there is nothing beyond a few references to previous presidents that distinguishes this statement from other public declarations of support. 

Beyond the fact that all of the signers make a living from teaching and writing about the past I don’t see anything that renders their identification as historians salient.  So I am left with the question of why I should care about any of these statements.

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6 comments… add one

  • John R. Maass Dec 5, 2007

    It calls into question their objectivity as historians, particularly those who work in modern fields.

  • Tim Lacy Dec 5, 2007

    Kevin: Ditto. Check my post today on the subject. – TL

  • Larry Cebula Dec 5, 2007

    Amen Kevin. This sort of thing 1) divides historians for no good reasons, 2) misrepresents what our discipline does, and 3) plays right into the hands of the whole Horowitz critique of the academy as a politicized and bent on indoctrination.

  • Woodrowfan Dec 7, 2007

    Most of those who signed the Ron Paul statement are not historians judging from their department affiliations.

  • Michael Kazin Dec 9, 2007

    I’m not sure why you object to Historians for Obama, which I helped to organize. Labor unionists, entertainers, business people, attorneys routinely endorse candidates and use their particular expertise to explain their decision. Why should historians prohibit themselves from doing the same?

    And anyone who argues that an endorsement violates the code of objectivity knows nothing about the history of the profession — or, for that, matter, the history of ideas. Many of our greatest historians — Bancroft, Hofstadter, Beard, Lerner, etc., etc. — have endorsed and worked for candidates in the past. They took seriously the obligation to be good citizens, which is all the signers of the Obama statement are trying to be.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 9, 2007

    Professor Kazin, — Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my post. I want to be clear that I don’t in any way object to historians who choose to involve themselves in politics and other social issues. And I agree that the signers of the petition are attempting to be “good citizens.”

    I have absolutely no problem at all with individuals openly declaring their support for candidates and other issues. That said, I guess I just wanted to hear more as to how signing a petition as historians matters. Perhaps I am demanding something extra from historians as opposed to the groups you cited in your comment and others. Or to put it in the form of question: What “expertise” are historians bringing to the table in making this public statement? The pubic statement is indeed well crafted, but there is little in the form of historical analysis that defines it specifically as the work of professional historians.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment. I hope that helps to clarify my perspective on this issue.

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