Why We Need Professional Historians

Last night Judge Andrew Napolitano returned to The Daily Show a week after Stewart’s segment in which he critiqued some of the judge’s most problematic claims about Lincoln and the war. You can watch the interview [and here] as well as the little game show skit featuring Napolitano and a panel of historians, including Eric Foner, Manisha Sinha, and James Oakes.

The interview alone ought to remind us of why we need professional historians. Here we have two intelligent and even well read individuals, but put them together for a discussion about Lincoln and the Civil War and what you get is mud. Neither of them has a firm grasp of the subject. Half the time I couldn’t even follow what exactly they were saying. It has nothing to do with their political affiliations or anything else personal. It has everything to do with the fact that this is a complex subject that demands a great deal of time.

Right now my students are sorting through a collection of primary sources to better understand why emancipation happened when it did and why African Americans were eventually enlisted into the United States army. They have to sort through what appear to be contradictory statements by Lincoln; they have to make sense of the military scene; and they have to have some grasp of the many other factors shaping policy on these divisive subjects. One day a student may leave class feeling confident and the next day she arrives having read a bit more and is even more confused. It takes time.

I am not suggesting that academic historians are unbiased and I am certainly not suggesting that they are infallible, but there is a place and especially a need for trained professionals whose job it is to sort through and make sense of the past. Thanks to Stewart and Napolitano for the reminder.

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12 thoughts on “Why We Need Professional Historians

  1. Bryce Hartranft

    Their discussion on tariffs had me at a loss. I knew there were tariffs, but had no idea of whether they had gone down, up or when these changes happened. Pulled these facts quickly from websites – so let me know if anything is amiss. I would like to nail down these facts once and for all.

    Walker Tarriff of 1845 lowered rates from 32% to 25%. Tariff of 1857 lowered rates even lower down to 17%. By March 2nd, 1861 when the Morrill Tariff was passed, 7 southern states had already seceded. This is what allowed the Morrill Tariff to pass and raise tariff rates once again. So it is safe to say that tariff rates were at a low point in America when the Southern states seceded and only went up after they left.

    One thing to consider from a NYT article dated Feb 14th, 1861 on the Morrill Tariff: “Suppose the Cotton States to maintain even a form of government; they will certainly leave no stone unturned to draw off the Border States. One of the strongest arguments they could address to these would be furnished by a highly protective tariff on the part of our Government, toward which they cherish the deepest aversion, except, perhaps, Maryland and Kentucky. While efforts at reconciliation are still pending, both in and out of Congress, is it wise to divest ourselves of the power of offering similar arguments, and throw an additional firebrand among the present causes of difference?”

    The war had not started yet in March 1861 and so there was no dire need for money like there will be for future tariffs that they pass during the war. Is it possible that Radical Republicans wanted a war and passed the Morrill Tariff so as to intentionally antagonize southerners?

    NYT Article: http://www.nytimes.com/1861/02/14/news/the-morrill-tariff.html

    Reply
    1. Al Macky

      “The war had not started yet in March 1861 and so there was no dire need for money like there will be for future tariffs that they pass during the war. Is it possible that Radical Republicans wanted a war and passed the Morrill Tariff so as to intentionally antagonize southerners?”

      No. The tariff in place was a revenue tariff, whereas the Morrill Tariff was a protectionist tariff designed to encourage industrial development. The Radical Republicans at this time were a small minority. They didn’t have the power to pass a tariff. Until the Cotton States seceded, the Congress was controlled by the Democrats.

      Reply
      1. Bryce Hartranft

        Suppose you are right Al. Same day congress passed the Morrill Tariff, they also passed the Corwin Amendment. If radical republicans were really in control, they probably would not have allowed an amendment to be passed that barred them from abolishing slavery.

        Any thoughts on why the Corwin Amendment did not placate the South?

        Reply
        1. Al Mackey

          Easy. The Corwin Amendment did nothing more than codify the existing constitutional interpretation, that slavery in the states was a state matter the Federal Government had no authority to do anything about. The amendment did absolutely nothing about the crux of the argument at the time–the expansion of slavery. That’s why Lincoln was willing to support it. The Corwin Amendment would not prohibit Republicans from cutting off slavery’s expansion into the territories. And that’s why it didn’t placate the disloyal states.

          Reply
          1. Bryce Hartranft

            The text of the Corwin Amendment: “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

            I first interpreted “within any state” to mean anywhere in America, including the west. But the entire west was territories at this point (except oregon and california) and would therefore be exempt from this law thus enforcing the republicans stand on restricting the spread of slavery.

            I find this ironic on two counts. First that the 13th amendment could have gone down in history as maintaining history instead of abolishing it and secondly that the southerners had a chance to keep their life style in the south, but threw it away in hopes of green pastures.

            Reply
            1. Al Mackey

              It still allowed cutting off expansion of slavery, which Lincoln said was putting slavery on the road to extinction. The belief at the time was that if slavery didn’t expand it would eventually die off on its own.

              Reply
  2. Doug didier

    Walter Johnson points to Brian Schoen’s recent work. Concerned with three aspects of federal regulation which they believed transferred weath from south to north.
    1) federal tariffs
    2) duties on foreign shipping
    3) federal spending on northern maritime improvements.

    Bottom line was a south was the primary source of export revenue. Little of that wealth returned to the south.

    So my take it was more than tariffs. Whole system was unacceptable. Little was done to address the “problem” .. Just a lot of rhetoric..

    Reply
  3. Phil LeDuc

    This whole issue relates to something that astounds/confounds me – the number of people (mainly young people 30 and under) who say they get their “news” from either the Daily Show or The Colbert Report, i.e. shows on a network named “Comedy Central”. I suppose it’s because they no longer want to see/hear hard news, but rather because they want to be entertained by “news”, hence the sort of Napolitano/Stewart stuff that you’ve been posting about, Kevin. It’s really rather disheartening. Cronkite, Huntley, and Brinkley must be rolling over in their graves.

    Reply
  4. Rob in CT

    Or, Phil, that just about all TV news shows are utter garbage, which I find to be true. So, taking that as a given, getting your info from Comedy Central doesn’t seem much worse (or even may seem better) than getting it from one of the networks.

    Seriously, TV news is junk. All of it. While I personally think Fox is by far the worst, they all suck. I really cannot fault someone for ignoring it. I can fault them for failing to seek out non-TV sources, though.

    Reply
    1. Woodrowfan

      In my previous career I had access to a vast array of media from around the world. Reading newspapers and watching the news from everywhere from Asia, through Europe, Africa, Latin America, etc, was a real eye opener. There were terrible news sources elsewhere of course, and newspapers that made Fox and CNN look like NPR on their driest day, but there was also a lot of great reporting that made the US press look pitiful in comparison.

      Reply

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