Saturday, October 31, 2015

Making Judgments about Historical Figures

M.D. Aeschliman, professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, concludes this interesting contrast of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson with a general point about the uses of history. Arguing that Jefferson's golden words and his pose as a pro-Enlightenment friend of abstract liberty and the "common man" brilliantly deflected attention from his actual practice of slavery, Aeschliman much prefers the self-made, strongly anti-slavery man Hamilton. The lesson about the study of history:

History, whether personal or collective, is the best guide to our individual and collective lives. We need always to compute who — or which action, in self or others — deserves praise, and which deserts principle and deserves criticism and condemnation. Biographical studies such as Gordon-Reed’s and O’Brien’s on Jefferson and Brookhiser’s and Chernow’s on Hamilton exemplify the rational and moral function of the good historian as envisioned by Lord Acton. They stimulate and inspire their reader, an “animal capable of reason,” into actually becoming a rational animal.
Also worth reading on the issue is Allen C. Guelzo's essay, "What did Lincoln Really Think of Jefferson?"
in the New York Times, July 3, 2015.

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